Evidence – if more was needed – of the intensification of the Afghan war has come in the United Nations’ annual report on civilian casualties. 25 per cent more civilians were killed in the conflict in 2014 than in 2013, almost all Afghans by Afghans. Most civilians are now being killed in ground engagements, an indication of a shift in the way the war is being fought. However, IEDs laid by the Taleban and other rebel groups remain the second biggest killer. Afghan national security forces come out reasonably well; unlike most other parties to the conflict, they do not appear to deliberately target civilians, but the report shows the impunity with which pro-government armed groups abuse local populations. And as Kate Clark reports, the UN has also charted the desperate situation of war widows.Bodies of civilians killed in a suicide attack on 23 November 2014 in the Yahyakhail district of Paktika province. It caused 138 civilian casualties (53 killed, including 21 children, and 85 injured, including 26 children). UNAMA chose this AP picture to illustrate its latest civilian casualties report.
As always, the UNAMA’s documentation of the human cost of the conflict mixes painstakingly-gathered statistics with individual stories of horror and loss. Its Annual Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict 2014 also takes some fascinating, shocking sideways looks at trends as diverse as how Taleban courts actually work, how war widows are often subjected to violence by their in-laws and how ‘anti-Taleban uprisings’ can just leave populations vulnerable to pillaging and worse by their new armed masters. The report makes bleak reading, showing an escalation of the conflict (1), as the bare statistics show.
The statistics of the war
2014: the worst year for civilian casualties since UNAMA started systematic recording in 2009
2014: 10,548 civilian casualties; 3,699 killed, 6,849 injuries
22% more civilians were killed or injured in 2014, compared to 2013 (25% killed and 21% more injured)
How were civilians killed and wounded?
1) Ground engagements (34% of total), up by 54% from 2013
2) IEDs (28%) up 3%
3) Suicide and complex attacks (15%) up 28%
4) Targeted killings of civilians (11%) down 5% (although with a sharp, 78% increase in the western region)
Of the remaining 12% of casualties, 4% were caused by unexploded ordinance (more than double the 2013 figure), 2% by international air strikes and the remaining 8% by executions (including the documented beheadings of 17 people accused of spying), amputations, beatings etc in Taleban courts (up four-fold compared with 2013) and “abductions and other unlawful killings by all parties to the conflict.”
Who is killing and injuring civilians?
1) Anti-Government elements 72%
2) Pro-Government forces 14% (12% ANSF and 2% international military)
3) Ground engagements where responsibility could not be determined 10%
4) Unexploded ordinance 3%
5) Cross-border shelling from Pakistan 1%
The impact of the war
The dry figures of those killed and injured ripple out into a much wider human cost. More than 800,000 Afghans are now internally displaced by conflict (up by 8% compared to 2013). Women and children are doubly vulnerable, not just being among the dead and wounded, but also suffering if a husband or father is killed. UNAMA interviewed 60 war widows and found all them suffering economically after losing their breadwinner, many to the point of destitution; they spoke of having to pull children out of school to work or marry off young daughters. Most shocking was the statistic that more than one in four of the widows had suffered violence, often within days of their husband’s death, from the wider community or, most commonly, by in-laws who saw them and their children as a burden on the family.
UNAMA describes widows being subjected to verbal abuse, expulsion from the family home, forced re-marriage of themselves or their daughters, physical abuse and social ostracism. One 28 year old woman from Laghman said:
“One week after my husband’s death, the wives of my brothers- in-law started to abuse me. They would tell everyone that they have no responsibility to take care of me and my children. This continued for another week. Because of their treatment, I left my husband’s home and went to my parent’s home. I could not tolerate abuse and humiliation by them.” (2)
Changing trends in the war
The biggest factor affecting how the conflict was fought in 2014 was the drawdown of foreign forces and, particularly significantly, the reduced air support to Afghan troops. As UNAMA reports, the Taleban (3) are no longer deterred by the threat of air power from massing fighters in ways they had been forced to avoid for years:
In several areas, the Taliban carried out operations involving groups of several hundred Taliban fighters in an apparent effort to take and hold large areas of territory which were previously – at least nominally – under Government control, most notably in Helmand province. The response of Afghan security forces often appeared reactive with periodic operations launched against insurgents from Afghan forces’ bases located in or near larger population centres. Outside the relatively secure urban areas, in many districts, particularly in the south, southeast and east regions of the country, the presence of Afghan security forces and the Government was limited to the district centre, often leaving large groups of civilians without protection.
One consequence was more frequent and larger ground operations by both the ANSF and the Taleban especially in Helmand, Kunar and Faryab, with fighting often near district centres and often using indirect fire, ie firing mortars, rockets and grenades etc without a direct line of visibility to the target and are therefore far more difficult to use accurately. As UNAMA notes, “Mortars cannot be guided to hit a specific target and have a wide-area of impact; when used in civilian-populated areas the risk of civilian casualties is very high.”
The number of civilians killed and injured in ground engagements rose sharply in 2014 – an increase of 141 per cent by pro-government forces and 51 per cent by Taleban and other rebel groups (UNAMA finds the Taleban responsible for 43% of the casualties in ground engagements, pro-government forces for 26% and the rest unattributable or due to cross-border shelling). “Of particular concern,” it says, is that civilian casualties attributed to the Afghan National Army (ANA) in ground engagements quadrupled in 2014, reaching 398 civilian casualties (129 killed and 269 injured).” Half of all casualties by all parties were caused by the parties using indirect fire. UNAMA’s long list of incidents include:
Two small boys killed and five other children and their parents injured in a rocket attack by ‘anti-government elements’ [see footnote 3] on a security post in Chapa district, Kunar on 16 July 2014 which hit a civilian house.
14 people (including four women and seven children) killed and 14 others (four women and seven children) wounded when the ANA fired several mortar rounds on 18 August into Kunduz city. The target was anti-government elements, but the mortar rounds impacted on a civilian area.
Two killed and eight civilians injured – mainly day labourers – when anti-government elements fired a mortar round into Jalalabad on 11 November 2014.
UNAMA is also concerned about the correlated increase in civilian casualties, in particular of children, from explosive remnants of war left on the ground following fighting.
It has urged both the Taleban and ANSF to stop firing mortars and grenades into civilian-populated areas, warning that “all parties to the conflict must take all feasible precautions to protect the civilian population and civilian objects against the effects of attacks. Such precautions include advance warnings to civilians, choosing appropriate methods of warfare, and avoiding locating military targets next to civilian areas.”
Partnered special operations
Despite the international military drawdown (which brought a decrease in civilian casualties caused by the international military generally), UNAMA noted that civilian casualties had risen by nine per cent in partnered operations, with an increase in some regions in special operations led by the ANSF with support by international special forces. The international military in general in the last few years managed to establish good mechanisms for reducing civilian casualties, partly after recognising that transparency is the first necessary step to doing this. Worryingly, UNAMA notes, those involved in the partnered special operations have denied “all civilian casualties from these operations.”
It gives several examples of partnered operations resulting in civilians being killed and injured in Logar and Paktika (which presumably were denied).
On 18 September 2014, for example, it says the ANA conducted a night search operation in Nika district, Paktika, with international air support. The operation caused five civilian deaths (three men and two boys) and two injuries. On 9 August, ANA troops and international military forces conducting a clearing operation in Baraki Barak district, Logar fired mortar rounds which killed seven civilians (a woman, two men and four children, including a nine-month-old baby) and injured ten (a man, a woman and eight children). Civilians, said UNAMA “also reported harassment and intimidation by Afghan and international troops.”
The New York Times has also reported an upsurge in partnered night raids targeting Taleban and al-Qaida since November 2014; it mentioned US special forces and the CIA partnering with NDS paramilitary forces. That the US is taking part in combat operations raises interesting questions about how it is interpreting its mandate post-2014.
AAN has repeatedly (here, here, here, here, and here) reported on the dangers stemming from the lack of accountability and transparency of clandestine operations, in this case by US special forces and the CIA with Afghan forces. Those Afghan partners could be special forces, NDS paramilitaries or non-state, pro-government militias, often referred to as Campaign Forces. The latter exists outside the Afghan government chain of command and, we have been told, are still active in some provinces such as Khost. The fall out of ‘partnered operations’ is clearly a trend to watch.
Another trend related to the weakness of the central government has been the impunity with which abuses are committed by some units of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) (which come under Ministry of Interior command), ‘pro-government armed groups’ and what UNAMA calls ‘national uprising forces’, ie groups often hailed by the state who have pushed back Taleban from their areas. These are trends which AAN has documented in various provinces in recent years (including Kunduz – here and here – and Ghor).
Afghan Local Police
The Afghan Local Police (ALP), a still expanding force (now 28,000 men in about 40% of districts and in 29 provinces) and, notes UNAMA, welcomed by “many communities,” is also deeply problematic for others. UNAMA said the abuses it had documented largely comprised threats and harassment, but it also reported five deaths and 34 injuries after ALP assaulted civilians, either in revenge or as a punishment; on 11 July 2014, it said an ALP member shot and killed a local shopkeeper after “an argument over ice” and on 7 July, an ALP commander and four of his men beat up four civilians in Jurm district, Badakhshan province, during a wedding party after the family reportedly failed to provide food to the ALP as demanded. It also recorded forced displacement, including one village in Farah forced to re-locate on 12 October after the ALP ordered the local population not to allow Taleban to use their village to launch attacks. (The Taleban had also threatened them not to cooperate with the ALP).
UNAMA welcomed the fact that some ALP had been arrested and sent to court, but said oversight was still weak. The ALP Monitoring Unit in the Ministry of Interior still has no provincial reach, UNAMA said, but relies on chiefs of police, who may have factional or other ties to the local police. Also, says UNAMA “with the escalation of conflict in the north eastern region – where the ALP program has been consistently problematic – ALP has been viewed as an increasingly useful tool of control by security officials, who have been reluctant to compromise their frontline assets against insurgents in the name of accountability.”
Pro-government armed groups
UNAMA recorded a sharp rise in civilian casualties (up 85%), especially deaths (up 194%) caused by pro-government militias in 2014. Most came in ground engagements, some with the Taleban or other rebel groups, particularly in the north and north east when the Taleban launched large-scale offensives in areas of Kunduz, Baghlan and Faryab provinces and the government responded by mobilising armed groups to defend government-held territory. Most of the casualties, however came in fighting between rival pro-government militias. UNAMA explains this by saying there has been “an increase in localised struggles for power, influence and territory among these groups due to apparent weakened Government control of certain areas.” It reports such armed groups killing and injuring civilians during illegal search operations and in targeted killings and perpetrating other human rights abuses – for example, in Pashtunkot district, Faryab:
…villagers reported widespread human rights abuses committed by the armed group, including illegal taxation, forced labour, restrictions on movement, killings, private incarceration, beatings, interference in the education system and interference in marriage arrangements/decisions, including claiming the right to forbid, authorize or impose marriage. The armed group reportedly comprised hundreds of fighters and controlled 26 villages housing over 8,000 families in the district.
The local authorities told UNAMA only a major operation by Afghan national security forces would have the capacity to dislodge the militia.
UNAMA said it noted “the impunity enjoyed by pro-government armed groups, which permitted them to commit criminal acts including assault, intimidation and illegal ‘arrest’, and created an environment of fear, intimidation and lack of protection for civilians and communities.” In the absence of government action – there was not a single prosecution or conviction of a member of a pro-government armed group for human right abuses or crimes – UNAMA said the Taleban had been able to step in, on occasion, carrying out summary executions of commanders and claiming these were on human rights grounds.
The aftermath of anti-Taleban uprisings
UNAMA documents harassment and ill-treatment of civilians by members of a particular type of pro-government armed groups, those involved in ‘uprisings’ against the Taleban in the Gelan, Muqur and Andar districts of Ghazni since 2012 (see extensive AAN reporting here, here and here). Hailed by the government at the time as heroes, UNAMA describes systematic extortion of money, food, firewood and clothes from civilians, the stealing of cattle and harassment of men for growing beards. Despite elders getting one ‘uprising’ commander removed in December 2014, UNAMA said abuses have continued. They included the summary execution of a 19 year old civilian in Andar district on 14 January 2015 and an incident of collective punishment that involved severe beatings, including with metal chains.
The Taleban in the conflict
The Taleban remain, overwhelmingly, the biggest killers of civilians in this war, responsible for almost three quarters of the total deaths and injuries in 2014. These casualties came in mortars badly or deliberately aimed into civilian areas, the targeted killing of civilians, and executions, amputations and beatings handed out as punishments by Taleban courts. They also included the use of indiscriminate weapons like pressure-plate IEDs and using magnetic or remote-controlled IEDs against military targets in crowded civilian areas, such as bazaars or mosques or close to schools and hospitals. Much of the UNAMA report is given over to documenting these attacks and their consequences.
UNAMA has also striven to match Taleban claims of responsibility to individual attacks with analysis of the possible war crimes committed. In 2014, it said the Taleban had publicly claimed responsibility for 382 attacks which resulted in 1,682 civilian casualties (542 killed and 1,140 injured). 143 of those attacks deliberately targeted civilians, including attacks against tribal elders, humanitarian de-miners, civilian government or justice sector employees and aid workers. Deliberate attacks on civilians violate international humanitarian law (also known as the law of armed conflict). In 2014, such deliberate targeting of civilians included:
A suicide attack on the French Cultural Institute, (which is located inside a school), in Kabul on 11 December during a play on suicide attacks. The blast killed two civilians and injured ten others. It was launched, said a Taleban spokesman, because, in their view, the play had intended to “humiliate Islamic values and spread propaganda about our jihadi operations.” He also said they wanted to warn “media outlets and civil society organizations, that they would be targeted if they organized such events.”
The killing of 12 daily wage workers in Qala-ye Kah district, Farah, on their way to work at the border on 30 August 2014. The Taleban claimed they had killed arbaki (their term for the ALP). (4)
UNAMA has also tracked a further 236 attacks claimed by the Taleban which appeared directed at Afghan or international forces and which had killed or injured civilians. In terms of the laws of armed conflict, the military are legal targets. However if attacks are indiscriminate – recklessly causing civilian loss – or disproportionate – causing disproportionate civilian loss compared to the military gain – they constitute serious violations of the laws of war. They may also amount to war crimes. (5) Such attacks documented by UNAMA included:
A vehicle-born IED targeted a ANA/ALP check post in Azra district, Logar on 1 November, which killed or injured 21 combatants, as well as killing five civilians, including a pregnant woman and a child, and injuring 24 others, including four women and three children. It also damaged five civilian houses and a mosque.
An IED detonated, on 28 December, in front of a shop in Alingar district, Laghman, which was located near an ALP check post. It killed two civilians, and injured three others, including a boy.
Such reporting by UNAMA, linking claims of responsibility to particular attacks and analysing them in terms of violations of the law of armed conflict is invaluable. It directly substantiates allegations about how the Taleban fight, useful for anyone wanting to hold those responsible for war crimes. In this respect, late last year, the International Criminal Court, in its preliminary examination of the war in Afghanistan noted the Taleban’s deliberate killing of civilians. (It also looked into torture by Afghan and American forces.) UNAMA’s reporting may also prove useful for anyone engaging with the movement on trying to reduce civilian harm.
Taleban messaging changes, actions do not
UNAMA said it had “observed a change in the Taliban’s messaging and noted the stated commitment of the Taliban to ensure the protection of civilians.” In early 2015, for example, the movement widened its official definition of whom it considers a civilian. UNAMA reported:
A Taliban statement released on 4 January 2015 reported a revised definition of ‘civilian’ to include “any person who is not engaged in activities against the Taliban: “those people who do not stand shoulder to shoulder with the enemy forces and are not carrying out actions against Jihad are to be considered as civilians.” The 2013 statements reported a definition of ‘civilian’ which included women, children, elderly persons and those who “live an ordinary life” under the category of civilians who must be protected from attacks.
This still falls short of the international definition – which gives protection to all those who are not members of the armed forces or directly participating in hostilities –, but brings more people, theoretically, into categories which the Taleban officially say should be protected. (For more on this, see this analysis of the Taleban’s code of conduct.)
The Taleban has also started releasing monthly statements of what they allege are civilian casualties perpetrated by international or government forces. UNAMA said some of this information had enabled it to verify casualties not uncovered by its field teams. The movement also reported it had established a special committee for the avoiding of civilian casualties which was part of its military commission. A statement in September encouraged Afghans to report information about civilian casualty incidents, regardless of the perpetrator, and said the Taleban would conduct investigations,(6) send those who had broken their code of conduct to a sharia court and create the “proper conditions” for compensation, conciliation or condolences.
One could argue that the first step towards protecting civilians is to acknowledge the issue, ie bringing civilian casualties into the public discourse would be the first step towards mitigating harm. So far, however, as UNAMA wryly notes, the Taleban’s “stated intention to take measures to mitigate harm has not translated into better protection for civilians on the ground as civilian casualties caused by the Taliban continued to increase in 2014.” Moreover, the Taleban still deny that they kill and injured most civilians in the conflict. It looks rather as if the Taleban have realized that harm done to Afghan civilians is an issue which makes the movement look bad, ie the propaganda element is uppermost in their approach. Or, those concerned about civilian casualties – or the consequences to the movement’s image – lack the clout to influence commanders on the ground or have no influence over those making military decisions.
Looking ahead to 2015
An average of 29 civilians were killed or wounded every day during the conflict in 2014. UNAMA fears the numbers will only get worse in 2015:
UNAMA highlights that the security and political environment in the early months of 2015 suggests that Afghan security forces and the Taliban are determined to make the 2015 fighting season a turning point in the conflict. If the current trend of more frequent and larger ground engagements between large numbers of Afghan security forces and Anti-Government Elements continues, including indiscriminate shelling and the use of mortars, [rocket propelled grenades], IEDs and other weapons in civilian-populated areas, it is highly likely that civilian casualties will continue to rise in 2015.
(1) This was also highlighted recently by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). As well as detailing the effects of the conflict on civilians, it said it had seen a 37% increase in its transport of wounded combatants for medical care and a doubling of its recovery of the mortal remains of combatants.
(2) Speaking to victims of war-crimes, I have always been struck by how women usually report ‘being left without a guardian’ (ie their husband being killed) at the top of the ways in which they had suffered, ahead of losing children, rape or losing a family home.
(3) UNAMA uses the term ‘Anti-Government Elements’. We’ve simplified this to Taleban as they are by far the largest insurgent group. UNAMA includes in this category Hezb-e Islami and various foreign groups, including the Lashkar-e Tayba, Jaish Muhammad and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
(4) Compare a similar incident in October 2010 when the Taleban shot 27 labourers from Laghman travelling to the Iranian border. The Taleban claimed they had been out of uniform ANA soldiers (but privately a Taleban court in Quetta disarmed and stripped the commander involved of his position (see reporting here).
(5) Under Afghan domestic law, all these acts, whatever the target, would be considered illegal.
(6) Investigations are quite often announced by the Taleban, but any results rarely make it into the public domain. Last year, they included a promise to investigate the suicide attack on Afghan Local Police in Yahyakhel district, Paktika, who were targeted while they watched a volley ball match on 23 November 2014. Two ALP commanders and eight ALP policemen were killed, along with, inevitably given they were in a 400-strong crowd, 138 civilians. 21 children were among the dead and 26 among the wounded. One young boy reported to UNAMA:
“Our home is close to the playground, so on that day I went there to watch the volleyball match with my brother and cousin. … I walked faster, and made to the front line. There were hundreds and hundreds of people, young, old, children…We were very happy and cheering on both teams. … I watched the match with two of my classmates, and we were really enjoying it. When the explosion occurred, I was blown several meters away. … There were a lot of dead bodies around me, and the ground was covered with blood.”
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020