War & Peace

The Bloodiest Year Yet: UN reports on civilian casualties in 2015


A man carries a girl injured in a suicide attack at a checkpoint in Lashkargah, Helmand , killing two civilians and injuring two others,16 March 2015. Front Page of UNAMA report © 2015/AP/Abdul Khaliq.

A man carries a girl injured in a suicide attack at a checkpoint in Lashkargah, Helmand , killing two civilians and injuring two others,16 March 2015. Front Page of UNAMA report © 2015/AP/Abdul Khaliq.

2015 was the worst year for civilians in the Afghan conflict since UNAMA started systematically documenting casualties in 2009. Its annual report looking at the protection of civilians in 2015 found the trend towards more casualties in 2015 particularly marked for women and children. For women, IEDs are now the second biggest killer, with increased fighting in and around populated centres and a growing number of women trying to escape the conflict or get back home. As AAN Country Director Kate Clark reports, there were only a few bright spots in this report.

The statistics of war in 2015

How many killed and injured

  • 11,002 civilian casualties (3,545 civilian deaths; 7,457 injured), a rise of four per cent compared to 2014 (deaths down by 4%; injured up by 9%)
  • of these, 1,246 (11%) were women (333 deaths; 913 injured), an increase of 37 per cent compared to 2014;
  • 2,829 (26%) were child casualties (733 deaths; 2,096 injured), an increase of 14 per cent compared to 2014.

How they were killed and injured

  • ground engagements: 37% of the total
  • IEDs: 21%
  • suicide and complex attacks: 17%
  • targeted killings: 13%
  • explosive remnants of war: 4%
  • aerial operations: 3%
  • abductions 2% (1)

Who was killing and injuring

Anti-Government Elements (covering all insurgent groups, including the Taleban, the Islamic State aka Daesh, Hezb-e Islami, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Lashkar-e Tayeba) caused 6,859 casualties (2,315 deaths; 4,544 injured), comprising 62 per cent of total civilian casualties, a 10 per cent decrease from 2014.

Pro-Government Forces caused 1,854 civilian casualties (621 deaths; 1,233 injured), comprising 17 per cent of total casualties (14% Afghan National Security Forces/ANSF, 2% international military forces, 1% pro-government armed groups), a 28 per cent increase compared to 2014.

Casualties attributed to neither party during ground engagements: 4,137 casualties (1,116 deaths; 3,021 injured), comprising 17 per cent of the total, a rise of 85 per cent compared to 2014.

Unattributed explosive remnants of war: 431 civilian casualties (127 deaths; 304 injured), a one per cent increase compared with 2014 and 17 per cent of all casualties.

Go to the full UNAMA report here.

Civilian deaths and injuries by regions, Jan-Dec 2009-15. Screenshot from the UNAMA report.

Civilian deaths and injuries by regions, Jan-Dec 2009-15. Screenshot from the UNAMA report.

Trends in the conflict

The single biggest factor affecting the Afghan conflict in 2015 was the almost complete absence of international forces on the battlefield. The Taleban have felt confident enough to mass fighters and menace urban centres in ways not seen for a decade. They captured 24 district centres during 2015 (and are still holding four) (2) and one provincial centre, Kunduz; in 2014, they captured just four. Compared to the previously most violent year in the recent conflict (in terms of security incidents, rather than civilian casualties), 2011, when tens of thousands of extra US ‘surge’ troops ‘took the battle to the Taleban,’ in 2015, it was the Taleban driving the conflict, with the ANSF largely trying to defend territory.

Other trends have also become more apparent. It was difficult to discern much of a lull in Taleban operations during the 2014/2015 and 2015/2016 winters. Talk of ‘spring offensives’ and ‘fighting seasons’ now seem largely redundant. The Taleban also continued to push out of their traditional heartlands into the north-east, parts of which had been bastions of anti-Taleban resistance during the group’s season in power in the 1990s and early 2000s (also see AAN’s 2010 report, “The Northern Front”.)

The increase in civilian casualties in 2015 was driven by conflict in two regions, north-eastern and central Afghanistan. The north-east saw a doubling of civilian casualties compared to 2014, as, particularly in Kunduz city, civilians had to endure heavy fighting in September and October 2015. The central region also saw an 18 per cent increase in civilian deaths and injuries, there caused by suicide and complex attacks, particularly in Kabul. In a very real sense, the battle for Kunduz and the suicide attacks in the capital skewed the national figures because, elsewhere, civilian casualties were lower than in 2014. That included the south where they fell by six per cent – although it still saw the highest total number of civilian deaths and injuries. Some trends, such as increased civilian casualties from targeted killings and air strikes, were, said UNAMA, “consistent across the country.” Yet, a 20% decrease in deaths and injuries from IEDs did pull the overall figures down.

Responses to the Taleban onslaught

In 2015, Afghan government forces often found themselves having to fight on multiple fronts. They have taken record casualties, with an average of more than one thousand soldiers or police killed or injured each month for the first ten months of the year for which figures have been released (12,000 in total from January to October). (Casualty figures on the Taleban side are not known.) “The losses of Afghan regular forces,” said UNAMA, “weakened their ability to protect the civilian population, leading to a loss in public confidence in the Government.” For civilians, living in contested territory is usually the worst fate. One impact of the intensified fighting was a sharp rise in those trying to flee conflict. By the end of 2015, conflict had displaced more than one million Afghans (1.17 million) within the country’s borders, with 335,400 individuals having been displaced in 2015, an increase of 78 per cent compared to 2014.

One response to the Taleban onslaught from the Afghan government was to roll out more unofficial local militia forces – ie beyond the Afghan Local Police (ALP) to firm up its defensive line. Such militias have no standing in Afghan law and are frequently linked to abuses of the civilian population (more of which later). Also, as the year wore on, the US air force and special forces have also increasingly been drawn into fighting to shore up Afghan government forces, especially at critical moments, such as the Taleban’s capture of Kunduz in September 2015. Although the US air force and special operations forces had actually never ceased combat operations by the end of the year, President Obama’s assertion that America’s war in Afghanistan was over was looking increasingly threadbare.

Another new actor in the war, Daesh, also presented, said UNAMA, a “dangerous and new, though geographically limited, threat to the population.” The report documents its abuses of the civilians, particularly in certain districts of Nangrahar, which include targeting schools and even health clinics on the grounds they are ‘government’.

After a year in which the Taleban captured areas and government forces regained them, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General Nicholas Haysom in the report’s press release pointed to the danger of concentrating on who was up and who down in the war:

As parties to the conflict seek continued political and military gains, they must not forget that Afghanistan is not territory alone, but the place so many people call home. Claims of advances on the battlefield, heard over and over again from parties to the conflict mean little if parties fail to protect the population they wish to govern – the women, children and men of Afghanistan. The obligations of the parties to the conflict are binding, and should be the milestone by which parties judge their success.

Ground engagements

With fighting intensifying in and around urban centres, it was unsurprising that ground engagements were the leading cause of deaths and injuries among Afghan civilians in 2015. Pro-government forces caused 30 per cent of all civilian casualties from ground engagements and insurgents 25 per cent, while 44 per cent were unattributable.

Casualties resulting from government and international forces saw an increase of just over a quarter compared to 2014. This is “likely a result of the significant growth of security operations,” says UNAMA, although it also “notes concern that Afghan security forces often relied on heavy or explosive weapons defensively or as weapons of first resort.” 85 per cent of casualties from pro-government forces during ground engagement, it said, were caused by such weapons (artillery, mortars, rockets, recoilless rifles and grenades), an increase of 60% compared to 2014.

These findings underscore the critical need for the Government of Afghanistan to put in place robust, practical measures to reduce civilian casualties from the use of explosive weapons by Afghan security forces, and ensure accountability for those personnel responsible for negligent or intentional harm caused to civilians.

Casualties attributed to the Taleban in ground operations fell by 38 per cent in 2015. However, given that the number which UNAMA could not attribute to either party rose sharply – by 85 per cent – it is likely those caused by the Taleban were masked to a greater or lesser extent.

Both sides used weapons such as mortars, rockets, grenades and other explosive weapons in populated environments in some instances indiscriminately. This had “a severe humanitarian impact on civilians.” Accountability on both sides for what may amount to war crimes, was, said UNAMA, entirely lacking.

Neither Afghan national security forces nor any Anti-Government Element groups, including Taliban, have demonstrated a single instance of accountability for incidents where civilians appeared to have been directly targeted, harmed by an indiscriminate attack, or where forces had failed to take sufficient precautions to prevent harm to civilians by the use of explosive weapons or indirect fire.

IEDs

Improvised Explosive Devices were the second most common way for civilians to die or be injured in the conflict, although the numbers did fall, by a fifth, in 2015. UNAMA believes the drop was due to better counter-IED measures by Afghan forces and possibly better targeting by the insurgents – civilian casualties from remote-controlled IEDs did fall by 30 per cent in 2015. However, insurgents’ use of the worst type of IED – the pressure plate model, which detonates indiscriminately regardless of whether military or civilian treads or drives over it – increased in 2015. 35 per cent more civilians were killed or injured by pressure plate IEDs, considered illegal because they are inherently indiscriminate.

UNAMA said insurgents were increasingly planting this type of IED as a defensive weapon to slow or prevent ANSF advancing before, during and after ground engagements and that it had documented “multiple incidents of pressure plate IED detonations in civilian agricultural areas, footpaths, public roads and other public areas frequented by civilians” where civilians were killed or maimed “as they went about their daily lives, traveling between villages and grazing livestock.” For women, IEDs are now the second biggest killer, with increased fighting near civilian populated-areas and a growing number of women trying escape fighting or return home.

Suicide attacks and targeted killings

Other trends in the fighting in 2015 included marked increases in civilians being killed and injured in complex and suicide attacks (a rise of 16 per cent compared to 2014) and targeted killings (up 27 per cent).

Suicide and complex attacks said UNAMA “caused extreme harm” particularly when carried out in urban areas. Kabul city, Lashkargah and Jalalabad all saw bloody attacks in 2015. The Taleban claimed just over half of the year’s complex and suicide attacks which killed or injured civilians. However, as AAN has reported before, Taleban denials of responsibility or silences in the face of particularly horrific attacks with no obvious military gain need to be taken with some scepticism. This was the case, for example, in the triple attacks in Kabul on 7 August 2015 when Kabul saw its worst bloodshed since the 1990s; the Taleban claimed two of the attacks, but was at first silent about and then denied responsibility for the other, the bombing of the residential neighbourhood of Shah Shahid which killed 15 civilians and injured 283 others (there were also suicide attacks on the police academy, which killed 27 and injured 30 civilians, and on the US Special Operations Forces’ Camp Integrity and caused no civilian casualties). (See AAN analysis here.)

In 2015, targeted killings became the second leading cause of civilian deaths.

Insurgents targeted civilian government officials (962 civilian casualties – 156 killed and 806 injured, a doubling of the numbers for 2014), justice officials (188 civilian casualties – 46 killed and 142 injured, a 109 per cent increase compared to 2014), prominent women or women with male relatives in the ANSF, and tribal elders and mullahs considered to be pro-government. There were also some targeted killings by pro-government forces, amounting to five per cent of all civilian casualties by these forces.

Aerial and joint operations

Reversing declines in civilian casualties from air operations in recent years, 2015 saw a rise of 83 per cent in those killed (149) and injured (147) by both the US and Afghan air-forces. Offensive air-to-ground strikes carried out by Afghan security forces, said UNAMA, caused nearly half (43%) of all civilian casualties from aerial operations and that trend was upwards – civilian casualties from Afghan security forces’ aerial operations tripled in the second half of 2015, said UNAMA compared to the first, as it acquired more air operational ability.

The new report does not spend much time on the single worst aerial attack of 2015, the US bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz on 3 October which caused 85 casualties (42 deaths and 43 injured), including 49 medical personnel. Detail on this can be found in UNAMA’s special report on the protection of civilians in the Kunduz conflict which was published in December 2015. However, like many, (see AAN’s reporting here) UNAMA was clearly not satisfied with the US and NATO investigations into the strike and made a particularly strong recommendation for an independent investigation, saying international forces should:

Conduct an independent, impartial, transparent and effective investigation of the airstrike on the MSF hospital and make the findings public. Ensure accountability for those responsible. States with jurisdiction over personnel involved in this incident must ensure that individuals responsible for authorizing and carrying out this attack are investigated subject to a prompt, effective, independent, impartial and transparent process. Individuals reasonably suspected to have engaged in war crimes with the requisite intent should be prosecuted by a legally constituted tribunal, with due regard for the rights of the accused. Appropriate steps should be taken to ensure compensation.

As AAN has previously discussed, targeting criteria appeared to have been loosened during the battle to re-take Kunduz in October 2015, possibly to the point where the Laws of War were breached. It was interesting therefore that one of UNAMA’s recommendations to the international military (here the US as the only combat force on the ground) appeared to refer to this:

Review current targeting protocols, operational policies and pre-engagement targeting criteria to prevent attacks against civilian locations, including hospitals.

UNAMA also points up problems in joint operations by US and Afghan forces. Although overall civilian casualties during joint operations fell in 2015, it noted an increase in the second half of 2015 in Kunduz, Logar and Helmand provinces. It said it had documented 30 civilian casualties (23 deaths and seven injured) that occurred during nine joint search operations and one joint ground engagement. In two joint search operations, despite legal requirements to respect medical neutrality, NGO-run health facilities run in Charkh district in Logar and Sangin district in Helmand in December 2015 were targeted; health staff were arrested and clinic equipment destroyed. One of UNAMA’s recommendations points to the involvement of the CIA (see previous AAN reporting here) as well as military forces in these joint operations:

Ensure transparent post-operation reviews and investigations following allegations of civilian casualties on operations involving international security or intelligence forces, especially regarding UAV [drone] strikes and search operations; take appropriate steps to ensure accountability, compensation and better operational practice.

Some nasty aspects of the war: abductions, attacks on health care and education

2015 saw a sharp rise in abductions, with an increase of 39 per cent in the number of such incidents (410 in total, 400 by insurgents, the rest by pro-government forces) and more than a doubling (by 112%) in casualties (145 deaths and 27 injured), compared with 2015. These were the highest casualty figures since UNAMA started documenting such incidents in 2009, and represented two per cent of all civilian casualties in 2015. Motives included money, intimidation of the civilian population, extraction of concessions from other parties to the conflict and getting bargaining chips to exchange for hostages. Often, said UNAMA, victims said their former captors continued to demand money or other means of support from them even after their release, so that the “ordeal did not end with their release from captivity.” It is worth pointing out that the Taleban specifically ban kidnap for money in their Code of Conduct (see AAN analysis here). UNAMA also noted an increased targeting of Hazaras for abduction.

2015 saw attacks on schools and teachers and on health personnel and facilities. The total number of conflict-related incidents affecting education rose by 56 per cent (111 incidents, in 2015, compared to 71 incidents in 2014), although civilian casualties from these incidents did fall (by 32 per cent, with 25 civilian casualties, 11 deaths and 14 injured). Even so, intimidation and threats led to 222 schools closing during 2015 in seven out of Afghanistan’s eight regions. UNAMA also found parties to the conflict using schools as bases for fighting – fifteen incidents by the ANSF, three by the Taleban, two by Daesh and one by a pro-government militia.

UNAMA also charted an increase in the deliberate targeting of health personnel and facilities, with attacks on clinics and vaccination workers and the use of clinics by parties to the conflict. There were 63 incidents targeting hospitals and health personnel by insurgents (including 36 by Taleban and 12 by Daesh), a 47 per cent increase compared to 2014. In Nangrahar province, said UNAMA, one third of all attacks by Daesh fighters targeted health facilities and their personnel.

More militias

The Afghan government is increasingly using pro-government militia groups in the face of the Taleban onslaught. UNAMA has documented the government’s decision to roll out a new tranche of unofficial local militia forces, separate to the Afghan Local Police (ALP) in what the government calls the ‘National Uprising Support Strategy’. The aim is to create pro-government armed groups in 25 provinces in places where the ANSF presence is limited. Such groups have no basis in Afghan law and are not accountable to local populations.

UNAMA said that by the end of 2015, it had documented the formation of such militia groups in 23 districts of ten provinces. (3) The National Directorate of Security (NDS), it was told, hires village or tribal elders to propose members whom NDS vets, while the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG) provides financial support and the Ministry of Interior arms. It found groups numbering between 22 to 500 personnel operating under the operational command of NDS and ANP. Members included local civilians and former insurgents. UNAMA said government officials assured it that ‘national uprising’ groups were “not militia tied to powerful individuals or warlords, but a temporary initiative that would be absorbed by the Afghan Local Police programme after three months.” However, it is clearly not convinced:

UNAMA has consistently documented the misuse of weapons by pro-Government armed groups and their reliance on personal connections with Government authorities to perpetrate human rights abuses with impunity. The creation of additional armed groups outside the regular Afghan security forces chain of command will likely lead to an increase in such incidents.

Meanwhile, the last tranche of local ‘defence forces’ to be set up, the ALP, which the government said it is hoping will absorb the new ‘national uprising’ groups, again features heavily in UNAMA’s report. As of 16 January 2016, UNAMA says, the total number of ALP members stood at 28,231, covering 175 districts in 28 provinces. Civilian casualties caused by ALP have decreased, by nine per cent. This may be due to better accountability says UNAMA, or to the fact so many ALP are being killed or injured in the conflict or are deserting – 500 each month. It said the most common human rights violations attributed to ALP included “severe beatings, property destruction, theft, threats, intimidation and harassment.” It also documented targeted killings and the illegal detention of civilians.

The outlook for 2016

It is difficult to see how UNAMA could be charting a ‘better’ war by the end of this year. January and February are usually relatively quiet months, but 2016 has already begun in bloodshed, with heavy fighting in Baghlan and Helmand. No reprieve from the Taleban looks likely. Nor does it look, at the moment, that the ANSF will be able more adequately to protect the Afghan population.

 

(1) Other causes of casualties included parallel justice structure punishments, physical injuries inflicted to civilians during threat, intimidation and harassment incidents and cross border shelling from Pakistan. The latter fell by 61 per cent in 2015, compared to 2014 and contributed less than one half of one per cent to the total number of civilian casualties.

(2) District centres captured by the Taleban in 2015, according to the UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) were: Jawand, Yamgan, Chahardara, Dasht-e Archi, Waygal, Kohistanat, Nawzad, Musa Qala, Raghistan, Warduj, Baharak, Khak-e Safed, Khwaja Ghar, Imam Sahib, Qala-ye Zal, Kunduz district (comprising the city and nearby villages), Tala wa Barfak, Khamab, Gurziwan, Ghorak, Bala Baluk, Ghormach, Darqad and Reg. UNAMA compares this to 2014 when the Taliban captured four district centres – Yamgan, Du Ab, Charsada, and Kuran wa Munjan districts.

There are some more district centres that the Taleban have held since before 2015, and some additional district centres continue to be heavily contested, with only some symbolic presence of government troops. See for example, these AAN analyses here and here.

(3) Authorities confirmed to UNAMA the creation of ‘national uprising’ groups in: Jalrez district, Wardak; Kot district, Nangarhar; Daulat Shah district, Laghman; Raghistan, Arghanjkhwah, Baharak, Shuhada, Zebak and Tagab districts, Badakhshan province; Borka district, Baghlan; Almar and Qaisar districts, Faryab; Kohestanat and Suzmi Qala districts of Sar-e Pul; Khamab, Aqcha, Mingajik, Fayzabad, and Qarqin districts, Jawzjan province; Aybak district, Samangan; and Chemtal and Chahar Bolak districts of Balkh.

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