War & Peace

Spring Offensive 2: Civilian casualties


At least fifteen children have been killed in the war in Afghanistan in the last 36 hours. All were ‘collateral damage’ from insurgent attacks – victims of two IEDs in Laghman and Farah and a suicide bomber’s blast in Paktia. The surge in the insurgency this year has been intense and civilians, generally, are being killed and wounded in far higher rates than last year. As AAN Senior Analyst Kate Clark reports, the sort of indiscriminate attacks of the last two days break the laws of armed conflict and may amount to war crimes. They also breach the Taleban’s own code of conduct.

AAN’s last posting – ‘After the “operational pause”: How big is the insurgents’ 2013 spring offensive?’ – detailed the swell in opposition violence this year. The last 36 hours have, in a particularly gruelling way, shown the bloody consequences for Afghan civilians of the insurgents’ fight.

Today, officials in Farah (readhere and here) reported that a family car had driven over an IED in Lash-o-Jawain district, killing three children and their father. Yesterday, (read here and here) women and children who had been gathering firewood in Laghman were returning home in a truck which struck an IED; officials said seven people were killed, two women, four children and the male driver. On the same day, a suicide bomber blew himself up in Chamkani district in Paktia. The target was a US military delegation – two American soldiers and a policeman were killed in the blast – but most of the victims were children coming out of school. 10 were killed and others injured.

UNAMA in a statement made yesterday,on 3 June 2013 (ie before the deaths in Farah) said that in the previous two weeks, 125 Afghan civilians had been killed and 287 had been injured in ‘conflict-related violence’, mainly (84 per cent) at the hands of insurgents. This was an increase of 24 per cent, it said, compared to the same period in 2012. The Taleban may not target children, but their reckless use of IEDs and suicide bombers and their utter failure to take precautions to protect civilians during such attacks is, nonetheless, resulting in the deaths and injuries of children – along with civilian men and women. Such indiscriminate attacks break the laws of armed conflict(1) and, says UNAMA, ‘may amount to war crimes.’

But the Taleban also break their own rules. The movement’s code of conduct (read AAN’s translation and analysis) orders fighters to, ‘with all their power . . . be careful with regard to the lives of the common people and their property’; ‘avoid casualties among the common people’ when conducting suicide attacks, and promises that anyone who harms people in the name of the ‘mujahedin’ (the Taleban’s name for their fighters) shall be punished. The current version of the code, introduced in 2010, tightened up rules on suicide bombings,(2) precisely because of the bad publicity caused by indiscriminate attacks. That year, it seemed more care was taken and fewer civilians were killed in suicide attacks (see UN and AIHRC numbers and analysis). The trend did not continue.

Indeed this year, insurgent commanders have been sending even more fighters to blow themselves up, not just in Kabul, but across the country. They included the worst attack this year, a supposed attempt to free Taleban prisoners by using nine suicide attackers disguised as Afghan soldiers in Farah city that resulted in at least 44 people, mainly civilian, dead and more than 100 injured on 4 April 2013. The Taleban and other insurgents also keep using ‘pressure plate’ IEDs which have enough explosives to blow up a military vehicle but can be triggered by as little as the weight of a child stepping on it (see UNAMA’s 2012 report for more detail).

Add to this the suicide attacks on two international civilian bodies – the International Organisation for Migration in Kabul and the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jalalabad (see reporting here and here, and civilians – Afghan and international alike – are clearly in the firing line.

In the Taleban’s announcement of their ‘spring operation’, they claimed again that fighters would be told ‘the importance of protecting the lives and property of civilians’. But they also called on ‘Muslim countrymen to stay away from the bases of the invaders, their residential areas or working for them in order to avoid civilian losses’ and advised officials and workers of the government to break with it in order to ‘protect themselves.’ It looked like a pre-emptive attempt by the Taleban to dump responsibility for the fates of civilians whom they would kill this year on the victims, a suggestion that the dead would only have themselves to blame.

(1) Regardless of the method of attack – IED, rocket, suicide bombing or drone – the rules are the same: military forces must distinguish at all times between civilian and military targets and must not target civilians or their property; they must take all feasible precautions and constant care to spare the civilian population; for example, they must not carry out indiscriminate attacks; when they do attack a military target, any expected civilian losses must be proportional to the direct military gain.

(2) Article 57 and the code says:

The martyr mujahed shall be well-trained before the attack; martyrdom operations shall take place against important and major targets. The Islamic nation’s sacrificing heroes shall not be used against minor and valueless targets . . . Take great efforts to avoid casualties among the common people. Except those mujahedin who have been given permission and private programmes by the leadership, other mujahedin are obliged to get their orders from the provincial officials to carry out martyrdom operations.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace