The number of Afghan civilians being killed in the war has risen yet again, according to UNAMA’s yearly assessment of civilian casualties for 2011. The eight per cent increase since 2010 (25 per cent increase since 2009) is largely due to the actions of ‘anti-government elements’, as the UN refers to the insurgents who are, of course, largely Taleban, but also include the various other Afghan and foreign jihadist groups. Deaths attributed to ‘pro-government forces’ – the international and Afghan government forces – are down by four per cent, but the ANSF share rises steeply. Kate Clark, a senior analyst at AAN, looks at the figures.
Reading UNAMA’s latest annual report on the protection of civilians is difficult – a bludgeoning of the brain with statistics of death, injury and bereavement. It is an indication that whatever assertions might be made of progress in the war, Afghan civilians are dying in increasing numbers. It reinforces the urgency – as peace talks may now be on the agenda – of the war itself needing to be ended. And as UNAMA itself says: ‘[A]ny such negotiations [should] place the highest priority on protection of civilians in the ongoing armed conflict and in any outcome that leads to its resolution with an emphasis on concrete and effective measures to reduce civilian deaths and injuries.’
‘Anti-government elements’ continue to kill the vast majority of civilians. UNAMA puts this figure at 77 per cent:
‘The record loss of the lives of Afghan children, women and men resulted from changes in the tactics of Anti-Government Elements and changes in the effects of tactics of parties to the conflict. Anti-Government Elements used improvised explosive devices more frequently and more widely across the country, conducted deadlier suicide attacks yielding greater numbers of victims, and increased the unlawful and targeted killing of civilians.’
Almost a third of all these deaths are from IEDs. Many are so indiscriminate that enough explosives to destroy a tank are laid with a trigger mechanism which can be set off by the foot-step of child. 36 per cent of all the children killed last year, as well as 46 per cent of women, were killed by IEDs. Deaths from suicide attacks and targeted killings are also up.
Deaths by ‘pro-Government elements’ which include international and Afghan government forces are down by four per cent, although there has been a marked increase in deaths from aerial attacks and a 196 per cent increase in deaths by Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Geographically, the impact of the war has got less, although it is still bad in the south, and it has got a lot worse in the south east and east.
That the Taleban and other insurgents have killed 14 per cent more civilians in 2011 than 2010 came during the same period when the Taleban leadership has been talking increasingly about protecting civilians. Messages by Mulla Omar at Eid ul-Fitr, at Eid ul-Adha, the declaration of the Spring 2011 al-Badr Operation and the Taleban’s Code of Conduct or Layha, which was re-published this year, have all declared an intent to protect the lives and property of Afghan civilians, to concentrate on military targets and to discipline fighters and commanders who fail to heed these orders. However, as UNAMA concludes:
‘Despite Taliban statements with improved messaging on civilian protection in 2011, UNAMA has not documented improved compliance with international humanitarian law by the Taliban or a reduction in civilian casualties due to improved targeting practices.’
At the same time, according to the leaked NATO report on the state of the Taleban, the ‘protect civilians’ message has been passed on to Taleban commanders and foot soldiers. That these orders have had a negligible effect on the numbers of civilians killed may be due to lack of serious intent or lack of discipline. One pertinent factor, certainly, is the issue of who the Taleban perceive to be a civilian. In terms of assassinations, for example, UNAMA documented the killing of 495 civilians (up by three per cent from 2010), including ‘provincial and district governors, local government officials and workers, provincial and peace council members and local community and tribal elders.’ For the Taleban, such people, because they are pro-government, are legitimate targets. In this way, they breach international law which orders the protection of all civilians not directly participating in hostilities.
Civilians are also bound to be killed in large numbers as long as the Taleban use IEDs; these are their main weapon and are, on the whole, completely indiscriminate. (It should be noted here, that spilling the blood of ‘innocent Muslims’ is a crime, according to Mulla Omar’s Eid ul-Adha message, including when this is through ‘negligence’ in IED, suicide or other operations.)
As for suicide attacks (where civilian deaths have increased by 80 per cent), I did have the impression that there had been some changes of strategy during 2011 after the horrific run of civilian targeted attacks at the start of the year. These included the killing of nine civilians, including six members of one family – mother, father and four children – at the Finest supermarket, an attack on the Safi Landmark shopping centre, both in Kabul, and the killing of 40 people in a branch of the Kabul Bank in Jalalabad. The sight of gunmen casually killing customers at the bank was caught on cameras inside the bank and shown on national TV and led to widespread anger and disgust – and a backlash which had, in turn, seemed to lead to a change to targeting military objects. Without being able to interrogate UNAMA’s statistics, it is difficult to know if my understanding is correct.*
However, there is still also a clear problem in attacks on military targets by Taleban who are reckless of the inevitable civilian casualties. These types of attacks remain common, for example, the targeting of an ISAF bus in a busy part of Kabul in November in which four Afghan civilians, including two children, were killed) or at the start of this year, the targeting of Special Forces soldiers (it seems) at the busy entrance to Kandahar Air Base and a police patrol in the Kajaki bazaar in Helmand.
The Taleban rules on protecting civilians have got better and more detailed in the last year, but as UNAMA has said, far more needs to be done by the leadership to stop waging war in ways which end up with thousands of dead Afghans – to stop using pressure plate IEDs, start enforcing its own rules seriously and start recognising that civilians who are pro-government also deserve protection.
The international military gets a reasonably good report this time. In 2011, the number of deaths caused by ‘Pro-Government Forces’ fell by one per cent (with 14 per cent of total deaths). The number of civilians killed during night raids is down substantially, according to UNAMA (by 22 per cent), although there has been a rise in deaths caused by aerial attacks (up 9 per cent). An ISAF spokesman said they were still studying in the findings and she could not give any more analysis on why this might be the case and a senior officer told AAN they had an internal conference on this recently in an effort to work out why the figures were going up. In general, ISAF believes that a yearly total comparing 2010 with 2011 by month would show that more progress had been made in driving down civilian casualties in the latter part of the year than UNAMA has given it credit for.
AAN is soon to publish a short report on the international military and civilian casualties which will look at some of these issues in more depth.
One thing to watch, as Transition goes ahead and ANSF are increasingly in the lead in either joint or Afghan-only operations, is the huge 196 per cent rise in deaths attributed to ANSF in July-December 2011, as compared to the same period in 2010.
* It is worth mentioning here that the 56 civilians killed and the 195 injured in the Ashura massacre in December 2011 were included in the UN’s figures, even though the attack was attack strongly and convincingly condemned by the Taleban and was initially claimed by the sectarian Pakistani group, Lashkar-e Jhangvi, but for which there was no confirmation of responsibility. UNAMA says the group has ‘historic ties’ to the Taleban, which is debateable.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020