War & Peace

Record Numbers of Civilian Casualties Overall, from Suicide Attacks and Air Strikes: UNAMA reports on the conflict in 2018


The front page of UNAMA’s 2018 report into the protection of civilians shows a group of journalists and first responders caught in a suicide attack in downtown Kabul on 30 April 2018. They had arrived at the scene of an earlier blast when a suicide attacker posing as a journalist detonated another explosive device. Nine journalists were killed and six injured. ISKP claimed responsibility for both attacks, which together killed 21 civilians and injured 42 others, including four children. (Photo: Omar Sobhani /Reuters)

The front page of UNAMA’s 2018 report into the protection of civilians shows a group of journalists and first responders caught in a suicide attack in downtown Kabul on 30 April 2018. They had arrived at the scene of an earlier blast when a suicide attacker posing as a journalist detonated another explosive device. Nine journalists were killed and six injured. ISKP claimed responsibility for both attacks, which together killed 21 civilians and injured 42 others, including four children. (Photo: Omar Sobhani /Reuters)

The downturn in civilian casualties recorded in 2017 has reversed. UNAMA, in its 2018 Annual Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in Afghanistan, released today, records almost 11,000 civilians injured or killed in 2018, a five per cent increase compared to 2017. It is the highest number of civilian casualties on record. The Taleban continue to cause the most civilian casualties, says UNAMA, although the Islamic State’s local franchise, ISKP, and its use of suicide attacks has pushed casualties from that type of attack to a new high. Civilian casualties from air operations, mainly carried out by international forces, are also at an unprecedented high. Certain parts of the Afghan security apparatus – largely CIA-supported and operating with impunity – have also precipitated a huge jump in civilian casualties during search operations. AAN co-director Kate Clark has delved into the report.

UNAMA’s report 2018 report into the Protection of Civilians can be read here, as can all previous reports: 

AAN analysis of UNAMA’s earlier annual reports can be read here: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2013 and 2012.

The statistics:

  • 10,993 civilian casualties (3,804 deaths and 7,189 injured), representing an increase of five per cent compared to 2017 (with an eleven per cent increase in deaths and two per cent in injuries);
  • 1,152 women casualties (350 deaths and 802 injured), a six per cent decrease from 2017;
  • 3,062 child casualties (927 deaths and 2,135 injured), representing a “slight decrease” from 2017.

Since 2009 when UNAMA began systematically recording civilian casualties, it has documented 91,675 civilian casualties (32,114 killed and 59,561 injured).

How civilians were killed and injured (in order of magnitude):

Cause of CasualtyTotal Number of CasualtiesTotal Number of DeathsTotal Number of InjuredPercentage of all Civilian CasualtiesComparison with 2017
Ground Engagements3,3828142,56831%3% decrease
Complex and Suicide Attacks2,8098861,92326%22% increase
Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)1,818 4751,343  16%2% decrease
US and Afghan Forces Air Operations1,015 5364799% 61%  increase
Explosive Remnants of War4921503424% 23% decrease
Search operations 353284693%       185% increase

Who is responsible?

Anti-Government Elements (AGEs), including the Taleban, the Islamic State Khorasan Province, ISKP (also known as Daesh), and other Afghan and foreign insurgent groups, were responsible for a total of 6,980 civilian casualties (2,243 deaths and 4,737 injured), representing 65 per cent of all civilian casualties, a three per cent increase compared to 2017.

Insurgent ActorTotal Number of CasualtiesTotal Number of DeathsTotal Number of InjuredPercentage of all Civilian CasualtiesComparison with 2016
Taleban4,0721,3482,72437% 7% decrease
ISKP2,181 681 1,50020% 118% increase
Undetermined AGEs and other actors6781964826%

The leading causes of civilian casualties carried out by AGEs (in order of magnitude) 

  • suicide and complex attacks
  • IEDs
  • ground engagements

Pro-government forces, including Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), international forces (only the US has a declared combat mission in Afghanistan with military forces and the CIA present), and pro-government armed groups, were responsible for a total of 2,612 civilian casualties (1,185 deaths and 1,427 injured), representing 24 per cent of all civilian casualties, an increase of 24 per cent (and reversing the decrease of 23 per cent in 2017). 

Pro-Government ActorTotal Number of CasualtiesTotal Number of DeathsTotal Number of InjuredPercentage of all Civilian Casualties
ANSF1,535606 92914% (about the same)
Pro-Government armed groups180 9981 2%  (94% increase)
International military674 406268 6% (146% increase)
Undetermined or multiple pro-government forces7743342% 

The leading causes of death by pro-government forces (in order of magnitude)

  • ground engagements and aerial operations (each 39 per cent of the total)
  • casualties resulting from search operations (14 per cent)

Unattributed cross-fire in ground engagements caused 10 per cent of all civilian casualties. Shelling from Pakistan into Afghanistan resulted in 60 civilian casualties (13 deaths and 47 injured), or one per cent of civilian casualties,about the same as in 2017. The remaining two per cent of civilian casualties could not be attributed to any party, but were mainly caused by explosive remnants of war.

Analysis

The Afghan war hit many horrible new records in 2018. More civilians were killed or injured in 2018 than in any single year since UNAMA began systematic monitoring, in 2009. The year saw record civilian casualties from suicide and complex attacks, and from air operations. The worst single attack recorded by UNAMA also took place. When the Taleban detonated an IED in a van painted to look like an ambulance outside the Ministry of Interior in Kabul on 27 January 2018 in Kabul, they killed 114 civilians and injured 229 others.

Afghanistan also suffered unprecedented election-related violence. From the start of voter registration on 14 April to the end of 2018, UNAMA verified 1,007 election-related civilian casualties (226 deaths and 781 injured) with more than half occurring on the two polling days (20-21 October). The first day of polling, according to UNAMA, recorded the highest number of civilian casualties on any single day in 2018. 310 civilians were also the victims of election-related abductions. 

In 2018, a record number of children were killed in the armed conflict (927; albeit just one more than 2016, but an increase since 2017). While there was a slight decrease in child casualties overall (including those injured), due to a decrease in casualties from ground engagements and explosive remnants of war, UNAMA noted that the increase in child deaths was attributable to airstrikes, including those carried out by international forces. 

Meanwhile, downward trends in 2018 were far fewer: those killed and injured in ground engagements continued to decline (by three per cent, following a 23 per cent reduction in 2017) – although this remained the leading cause of civilian casualties. There was also a reduction in civilian casualties from targeted killings by insurgents.

The one bright spark of hope in 2018 was the Eid ceasefire in June during which, with the exception of ISKP which neither called its own ceasefire, nor respected the Taleban, government and international forces’ ceasefires, was upheld. As we reported, it allowed Afghans to imagine their country at peace. Although not everyone was happy with it, many Afghans, both civilians and combatants from both sides took the opportunity to cross frontlines and fraternise with ‘the enemy’ (see reporting on varying experiences here). In September 2018, the United States also appointed a Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, its former ambassador to Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad (see AAN reporting here). He has, at least, given a push to thoughts of how to achieve a political settlement, although nothing (yet) has translated into any reduction in civilian harm on the battlefield. 

UNAMA’s report is long, thorough and full of statistics, analysis and stories detailing the human and personal cost of the war. AAN recommends reading it in full. This dispatch is not intended to reflect the granular detail of UNAMA’s report, but focuses on four important trends: the decrease in casualties in ground operations; the sharp rises in civilians killed and injured in suicide and complex attacks, especially by ISKP; and in aerial operations; and in search operations by pro-government forces, especially NDS paramilitaries and the pro-government, but outside government command, Khost Protection Force.

Ground engagements

Civilian casualties from ground engagements dropped for the second year in a row. Three per cent fewer civilians were killed in ground engagements in 2018 compared to 2017, and that was 23 per cent lower than in 2016. (The pro-government forces causing civilian casualties in ground engagements were almost entirely ANSF and pro-government groups; UNAMA held international military forces responsible for only two per cent.) 

According to UNAMA, the most important factor in this overall reduction was a 44 per cent decrease in civilian casualties resulting from shooting by pro-government forces. At the same time, however, indirect weapons (such as mortars, rockets and grenades) used by pro-government forces caused harm to civilians at roughly the same level as in 2017 (854 civilian casualties – 211 deaths and 643 injured). UNAMA again called for all sides to cease using indirect weapons from and into civilian-populated areas. 

UNAMA noted that efforts by pro-government forces “to prevent civilian casualties, including continued implementation of policies and efforts to train forces, track and learn from civilian casualty incidents, contributed to the decrease in civilian casualties from ground engagements.” UNAMA also observed a decrease in the number of civilians killed by Taleban shooting during ground engagements, although casualties from indirect fire increased. 

UNAMA highlights two other factors helping to push down casualties from ground engagements: the shift in ground fighting “towards more sparsely populated areas,” and “warnings provided to civilians where fighting occurred.” Where fighting did take place in urban areas, casualties were high. During the Taleban’s five day offensive on Ghazni city on 10-14 August (see AAN reporting here and here), 262 civilians were killed (79) and injured (183); UNAMA says these figures may be underestimates due to difficulties in accessing the city to verify additional reports of casualties. Most of the verified casualties were from indirect weapons (130 – 26 deaths and 104 injured) and small arms fired (36 – 13 deaths and 23 injured) during ground engagements. (UNAMA also recorded targeted killings by the Taleban, and seven air strikes by pro-government forces which caused 81 civilian casualties). 

Suicide and complex attacks

The 22 per cent increase in deaths and injuries caused by suicide and complex attacks was driven largely by ISKP. It was responsible for 87 per cent of the civilian casualties caused by these types of attacks. Despite constituting a significantly smaller fighting force than the Taleban, ISKP caused one fifth of all civilian casualties in the Afghan conflict. The number of its civilian victims more than doubled in 2018 compared to 2017 (from 843 to 1,871). As ISKP has been beaten back by US and Afghan government forces in Nangrahar province, where it now operates from a far smaller territorial base (see recent AAN reporting), it has, as UNAMA says, “increasingly relied on asymmetric tactics, including suicide and complex attacks deliberately targeting civilians (including most prominently the Shia Hazara community).” That civilian harm was mainly split between Kabul city (1,027 civilian casualties) and Nangrahar province (991 civilian casualties), with a notable attack also on Shia Muslim worshippers in a mosque in a village in Paktia (see AAN reporting).

ISKP also pushed up the numbers of civilians targeted deliberately in the conflict in 2018: 48 per cent more than 2017 (4,125 people – 1,404 killed and 2,271 injured). 

Aerial Operations

1,015 civilians were killed (536) or injured (479) in aerial operations in 2018, mostly by international military forces (632 civilian casualties – 393 deaths and 239 injured). (1) This represents a 61 per cent increase in casualties from this type of operation – accelerating a trend noted in 2017 (seven per cent increase compared to 2016). A large majority of the casualties (82 per cent) were deaths. Aerial operations were also accountable for the record number of child deaths this year in the conflict: the number of children killed in airstrikes more than doubled compared to 2017.

The US air force released 70 per cent more weapons in air operations in 2018 than in 2017 (7,362 compared to 4,36; itself a significant increase on the 1,337 weapons released in 2016), and caused more than double the number of civilian casualties. UNAMA says this followed additional deployments to Afghanistan at the end of 2017 and “a relaxation in the rules of engagement for United States forces in Afghanistan, which removed certain “proximity” requirements for airstrikes.” While the report does not provide any more details, UNAMA cites testimony made by then defence secretary General Jim Mattis in which he agreed with a question from a Senate Armed Services Committee member that “aggressive action and use of air power” was part of the “new strategy in Afghanistan.” Mattis said that the “kind of restrictions that did not allow us to employ the air power fully have been removed,” but that they would still do “everything humanly possible to protect the innocent that the enemy purposely jeopardizes by fighting from in amongst them.” Not surprisingly, the new rules have not been published, but Mattis’ remarks suggest they allow the US air force to interpret what constitutes a defensive operation far more broadly than before. (See his remarks in full in footnote 2.) 

Such rules are crucial. In the latter years of the ISAF and Enduring Freedom missions (which ended on 31 December 2014), the US military realised the harm civilian casualties were doing to its military mission and the overall political project. Its drive to reduce civilian casualties included new tactical directives on the use of air power introduced in late 2011. They included the instruction, “Presume that: every Afghan is a civilian until otherwise apparent; all compounds are civilian structures unless otherwise apparent; in every location where there is evidence of human habitation, civilians are present until otherwise apparent.” Approval for the defensive use of air fire depended on troops on the ground being in danger. (For detail, see this dispatch). In conversations with military personnel following the bombing of the Medecins Sans Frontier hospital in Kunduz by US aircraft in October 2015, ie after ISAF/Enduring Freedom had been replaced by Operation Resolute Support and Freedom’s Sentinel, AAN was told instructions then had not changed (our analysis of why and how the strike on the hospital happened was to do with rules and safeguards not having been followed – see here).

The UNAMA report suggests the US military is now taking a more ‘robust’ line against insurgents using civilian homes as cover. It gives as one example US forces carrying out airstrikes on a residential compound in Chahardara district, in Kunduz province, on the morning of 19 July 2018, which killed 14 women and children; indeed all the members of one extended family were killed except one baby, who was injured.

The incident took place during a ground operation by Afghan national security forces, including Afghan National Army commandos, who were supported by international military forces on the ground. During the operation, Afghan forces reportedly came under attack and responded with heavy gunfire, followed by mortars, on the compound from which they believed the shooting originated. A member of the family inside the compound reportedly called an Afghan Local Police commander stationed nearby to ask for help getting out of the house, but before anything could be done, an international military forces’ jet conducted an airstrike on the corner of the compound where they were located. A second bomb was then dropped directly on the house, completely destroying the building.

The US eventually accepted that civilians had been killed in the air strike. (3) 

In assessing the significant increase in civilian casualties related to air strikes, UNAMA said that, “[e]ven if one party to the conflict fails to respect international humanitarian law, that does not absolve opposing parties from their international humanitarian law obligations” and that, aerial operations should be cancelled or suspended if it “if it becomes apparent that it may be expected to cause civilian harm that would be excessive to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” UNAMA says those carrying out air operations must balance the military advantage against expected civilian harm and “take into account the likelihood of civilians being present in the area or inside structures from which Anti-Government Elements may be fighting.” It has called on Afghan and US forces to “review targeting criteria and pre-engagement precautionary measures, particularly considering the likelihood of civilians being present in the same buildings and locations as Anti-Government Elements.”

UNAMA says it is “particularly concerned that aerial operations by international military forces conducted in support of Afghan forces, mainly National Directorate of Security (NDS) Special Forces, during search operations, have also caused significantly more civilian casualties (including extremely high numbers of deaths) in 2018.” Civilian casualties resulting from those search operations also, themselves, shot up in 2018.

Search operations – NDS special forces, Khost Protection Force and the role of the CIA

Search operations by pro-government forces, said UNAMA, caused 353 civilian casualties (284 deaths and 69 injured) in 2018, a 185 per cent rise from 2017, when 92 civilians were killed (63) or injured (29). The vast majority of the casualties were caused by the NDS Special Forces and the extra-legal Khost Protection Force, both of which, says UNAMA “are supported by international military forces.” 

Most of the casualties caused by search operations were by NDS special forces (see reporting by AAN from 2013 on them here). In 51 incidents documented by UNAMA, 19 of which were joint operations with international military forces, 240 civilians were killed (203) or injured (37). All took place in central, eastern and southern regions (teams are known as NDS-01, operating in the central region; NDS-02 in the eastern region; and NDS-03 in the southern region). UNAMA also documented 51 civilian casualties (41 deaths, 10 injured) caused during 13 search operations conducted by the Khost Protection Force. (4) Such incidents have also been documented by AAN, including how the Khost Protection Force was accused of intentionally killing in a joint operation with US forces, presumed to be CIA, in Zurmat district of Paktia on 30 December 2018, the media (for example here and Human Rights Watch).

UNAMA said “[t]he high number of fatalities compared to the number of injured suggests that force was employed indiscriminately.” Additionally, UNAMA raised concerns 

…about the significant increase in incidents of human abuses, criminality and damage to civilian property by the Khost Protection Force. UNAMA has also received reports of unlawful and arbitrary detention, including following mass arrests, by different National Directorate of Security Special Forces, and the Khost Protection Force. It received credible accounts of detainees having experienced torture or ill-treatment while held in places under the authority of these entities.

UNAMA reports that 21 per cent of all civilian casualties caused by pro-government armed groups were carried out intentionally, mostly by the Khost Protection Force.

Overall, civilian casualties attributed to the Khost Protection Force in 2018 increased by more than ten-fold compared to 2017, with 107 casualties (70 deaths and 37 injured) in 22 documented incidents, compared with five (three deaths and two injured) in 2017. Some of those civilians were deliberately killed, said UNAMA, while others were incidentally harmed during search operations and others were harmed in ground operations. UNAMA says the group’s area of operations expanded in 2014, with 14 incidents documented in Khost, four in Paktia and four in Paktika. It has also intentionally damaged civilian property, including homes and vehicles, and illegally detained people. UNAMA calls on the government to 

… either formally incorporate the Khost Protection Force into its armed forces, and hold its members accountable for any potential violations of international humanitarian law and abuses of international human rights law, or to disband the group and investigate and prosecute members for acts allegedly contravening Afghanistan’s criminal law.

What is significant in looking at these search operations is that Afghan army special forces also carries them out, but is not reported as causing civilian harm. As AAN understands it, they are mainly supported by the US Special Forces while the NDS paramilitaries and the Khost Protection Force are supported by the CIA, although this is, of course, a very murky area (see AAN reporting here). The Khost Protection Force is not even part of the formal Afghan government apparatus, but a ‘campaign force’ ie, it has a foreign chain of command, answering to the CIA. As UNAMA says, its operations, along with those of NDS special forces, “appear to be coordinated with international military actors, that is, outside of the normal Governmental chain of command, which raises serious concerns about transparency and accountability for these operations.”  That the NDS and Khost Protection Force are problematic and Afghan army special forces are not implies systemic problems with the former in terms of command and control, and impunity.

One thing to note is that, like ISAF before it, it is NATO’s Resolute Support mission which answers to queries from UNAMA on civilian casualties, even though Resolute Support is non-combat (with a mandate only to use lethal force in self-defence). It is not the US military, which has its can-be-combat Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, nor the CIA which respond to enquiries about civilian casualties either from US air strikes or from search operations by CIA-supported armed groups.

Conclusion

As someone who has followed the Afghan conflict over many years, this author has come to expect demoralising news on civilian casualties from UNAMA’s annual reporting. However, this year, many of the trends are particularly worrying. There have been small improvements in Afghan Security Forces’ attempts to protect civilians, although the numbers killed and injured by government forces remain roughly the same as in 2017. The numbers killed and injured by the Taleban have fallen, but remain at shockingly high levels; the movement is still the main cause of civilian casualties in the conflict. Meanwhile, ISKP’s transformation into a sectarian, terrorist outfit bent on carrying out large-scale, deliberate attacks on civilians in cities has meant calamitous casualties in horrific single attacks.

On the pro-government side, two trends were of especial concern. The first was the sharp rise in civilian casualties from air operations, especially those by international forces. This is especially so given the efforts made in the latter years of the ISAF/Enduring Freedom missions by the US military to drive civilian casualties down. In 2017, civilian casualties from air strikes also rose, but UNAMA could still argue then that, proportionally (ie in relation to the number of weapons dropped), they had not. This, it said, suggested that the “quality of safeguards is not falling.” (6) Commenting on air strikes conducted by international forces in 2018, by contrast, UNAMA has written at length about air strikes in relation to the Geneva Conventions and its principles of proportionality, precautions and discrimination. (5) It called on international forces to:

Thoroughly review and strengthen current tactical protocols to prevent civilian casualties, particularly in the context of strikes carried out in support of Afghan and/or international military forces on the ground who come under attack, and strikes carried out on structures in any context. 

The harm done to civilians by NDS special forces and the Khost Protection Force is alarming, not only because of the sharp increase in civilians killed and injured, but also, because as UNAMA has documented, many of the killings were deliberate. Furthermore, both groups appear to answer to a foreign chain of command. This helps make it difficult, if not impossible, for Afghan civilians harmed by their actions to hold them or their main backer, the CIA, to account (see AAN reporting from 2012 on the CIA’s role in the war).

In 2019, Afghanistan will enter its fortieth year of war and eighteenth year of this particular phase of the conflict, with little hope in sight that the harm done to civilians on the battlefield will be reduced – unless and until there is progress in a political settlement and an enduring ceasefire.  

Edited by Danielle Moylan

(1) UNAMA attributed 304 casualties in aerial operations (118 deaths and 186 injured) to the Afghan Air Force and said it could not determine responsibility for the remaining 79 civilian casualties.

(2) Excerpt from proceedings of the US Committee On Armed Services on the Political and Security Situation In Afghanistan on 3 October 2017.

Senator Fischer: Okay. Over the last few years, we have seen a decrease in our combat air operations in Afghanistan. From 2010 to 2015, we saw the total sorties conducted against enemy targets decrease by 84 percent in a span of only 5 years. During the previous administration, this was coupled with, I felt, very restrictive rules of engagement, and that focused on returning fire rather than allowing commanders to proactively attack those Taliban targets. In contrast, the air campaign against ISIS [in Iraq and possibly Syria] has reached record levels with over 21,000 sorties flown in 2016. The use of American air power helped stem further inroads by ISIS, and I think it was used successfully in locations such as Sinjar and Ramadi. Are we looking at something similar, this aggressive action and use of air power, as a new strategy in Afghanistan? 

Secretary Mattis: It is embedded in the revised strategy [on Afghanistan and South Asia, announced by President Trump on 21 August 2017], absolutely. In 2017, as you noted, we have had more airstrikes than any year since 2012. 

So already, you see some of the results of releasing our military from, for example, a proximity requirement. How close was the enemy to the Afghan or the U.S.-advised Special Forces? That is no longer the case, for example.

So these kind of restrictions that did not allow us to employ the air power fully have been removed, yes. 

That said, we will never fight at any time, especially in these wars among innocent people, without doing everything humanly possible to protect the innocent that the enemy purposely jeopardizes by fighting from in amongst them. That is something we will always take as an absolute, in terms of how we conduct our tactical events on the battlefield.

(3) UNAMA reported that on 20 July, the Afghan Ministry of Defence acknowledged the civilian casualties. A US military spokesperson denied this on 25 July, telling the media all those killed in the attack had been legitimate military targets, and it was denied again on 10 August. “Following significant advocacy from UNAMA,” the 2018 Protection of Civilians report says, “Resolute Support reopened its review process of the incident and it proceeded to a formal investigation under United States Army Regulation 15-6, which confirmed 12 civilians were killed and one injured.” 

(4) UNAMA attributed the remaining civilian casualties from search operations by pro-government Forces as follows: 13 civilian casualties (8 deaths and 5 injured) jointly to various pro-government forces; five civilian casualties (4 deaths and 1 injured) to international military forces; and 11 civilian casualties (9 killed 2 injured) to undetermined pro-government forces.

(5) UNAMA explains these principles in its legal section:

The contents of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and several rules similar to those found in their Additional Protocols are also largely part of customary international humanitarian law. The following are amongst the most relevant principles that apply to all the parties in the conduct of hostilities in Afghanistan’s non-international armed conflict (for the quotations see footnotes on page 58 of the report) :

  • Distinction: The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack and parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants.
  • Proportionality: “an attack against a military objective which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated, is prohibited.”
  • Precautions in attack: “[…] civilians shall enjoy general protection against the dangers arising from military operations”.“In the conduct of military operations, constant care must be taken to spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects” and all feasible precautions must be taken with the “view to avoiding, and in any event to minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.”

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Thematic Category: War & Peace