War & Peace

War Intensifies with More Civilian Casualties: the half-yearly UNAMA report


Scared, injured, killed. UNAMA chose this picture to illustrate its report on civilian casualties. It shows terrified children during a Taleban attack in Kabul's centre on May 24. Photo: UNAMA/Reuters, Omar Sobhani

UNAMA’s six monthly report on how civilians are faring in the war (Mid-Year Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict) shows a reversal in last year’s trend of fewer civilian casualties. Comparing the first half of 2013 with the first half of 2012, a fifth more civilians were killed or injured in the fighting. Comparing 2013 with 2011, the most violent year since the current phase of the Afghan war started, more civilians have been injured and almost as many have been killed. The Taleban are still responsible for the bulk of these casualties, but UNAMA believes the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are under-reporting those which they are causing. As all sides in the conflict try to claim they have the upper hand, one thing is clear, says AAN Senior Analyst, Kate Clark, civilians, at least, are not winning.

With both ISAF and the Afghanistan NGO Security Office (ANSO) choosing no longer to release their statistics on the war (see ANSO’s explanation here), the UNAMA set (report here) has become more important. Unlike ISAF and ANSO, UNAMA does not count the number of attacks or the intensity of the fighting, but only its impact on civilians, primarily deaths and injuries (ANSO also counted this; see previous AAN reporting for how the three organisations use statistics here). UNAMA does also try to humanise its calculus of the war, interspersing stories of the victims with its figures and analysis.

Casualties from the insurgents

As in previous years, the Taleban and other insurgent groups are responsible for the bulk of civilian casualties – 74 per cent. More than half of the total number of victims have been killed and injured by IEDs laid by insurgents and by their suicide and complex attacks. The insurgents are also killing increasing numbers of civilians in targeted killings. The threat has risen especially sharply against government employees (up by 76 per cent) including judges and against mullas who give the last rites to members of the Afghan security forces killed in action. (Places of worship and religious leaders are both specifically protected in the Geneva Conventions and the other laws which form the Laws of Armed Conflict.)

The one bright spot on the insurgent record is the reduction in their use of pressure plate IEDs, those which explode when walked or driven over. UNAMA has been badgering the Taleban to stop using these weapons as they are inherently indiscriminate, killing military and civilian alike (see here). Their reduced use is very good news, although the reason is not so clear. UNAMA notes the Taleban claim to have become more discriminating in their attacks – remote-controlled IEDs are less indiscriminate than pressure-plate IEDs, although the Taleban still use them to specifically target civilians. (Targeting civilians and carrying out attacks which do not discriminate between civilians and military targets can both amount to war crimes.) UNAMA also notes, however, that the withdrawal of ISAF radio jamming equipment along with ISAF troops has made remote-controlled IEDs easier to use and an increase in their use has coincided with the reduction in pressure-plate IEDs.

Casualties from the international and Afghan military

There is a mixed record, as well, for what UNAMA calls “pro-government forces”, the ANSF and international military. They caused nine per cent of total deaths and injuries. The total number of casualties is up by 16 per cent compared with the first half of 2012. The ANSF caused 170 per cent more casualties (34 deaths and 90 injuries), although this was to be expected as they are now more centrally involved in the fighting. In this context, UNAMA is concerned about ANSF’s lack of transparency and accountability in dealing with civilian casualties. It says there is a “reluctance” in the ANSF leadership to investigate and provide accountability for civilian casualties caused by ANSF. “One result of inadequate efforts in this regard,” it says is that it is “highly likely that civilian casualties from ANSF actions are under-reported.”

UNAMA also castigates the international military, including the CIA, over its lack of transparency over several air operations which resulted in “disproportionate loss of civilian life” and its use of drones to carry out targeted killing, in particular. Its concern comes despite the fact that fewer civilians were killed in air operations – a result of fewer air strikes being called due to ISAF withdrawing and the still rigorous ISAF directives which limit air strikes (see AAN reporting here). President Karzai’s order in February 2013 banning the ANSF calling in NATO air strikes (see AAN report here) has apparently since been quietly overturned. UNAMA highlights several aerial operations which went wrong, including two involving the CIA and NDS in Shaigal district in Kunar which AAN also investigated.

UNAMA has published more detail on the second case in which the CIA and NDS attempted to carry out a targeted capture of a Taleban commander, had entered his house and segregated women and children into one room. They came under attack and one CIA agent was killed and four NDS agents injured. Air support was called in to enable the team to get out of the area. However, says UNAMA, further munitions were dropped after they “had exited… appearing to serve no clear military/tactical purpose”. Presumably at this point, they knew that the women and children would likely be harmed. The amount of air delivered munitions, UNAMA said, “appeared to be excessive and disproportionate to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated”. However neutrally worded, this is a grave accusation, namely that international forces (whether military or CIA) breached the Laws of Armed Conflict. UNAMA said its questions were brushed off by ISAF.

UNAMA is concerned that the international military, as well as the CIA, is still not being transparent when it comes to targeted killings – both how they target and how accountable they are when things go wrong. It said multiple requests for information as to how they determine a person is a legal target had been turned down.

Two other trends need to be noted: the Afghan Local Police (ALP) killed 14 civilians and injured 23 in the first six months of 2013, an increase in 61 per cent from the first half of 2012. As UNAMA drily notes, the majority of casualties happened while ALP were committing “human rights violations against civilians”, mainly in the north-east (see also this AAN analysis). It documented “acts of murder, torture, rape, threats, intimidation, harassment, forced labour, extortion and illegal taxation [and] occupying residential homes”. A related problem, it says, are armed militias, with a continued “blurring of lines between government and non-government armed groups in the north and north-east regions”, with both fighting the Taleban at times. This had, it said, “contributed to a proliferation of abusive practices”.

One hidden result of the conflict is that more Afghans are fleeing their homes. The number of conflict-related internally displaced is now well over half a million (574,000), with 93,000 new cases counted in the first half of this year.

Trends in the war

In 2012, the falling number of civilians killed and injured was positive, even if the reasons for the fall were argued over. The fighting was certainly less intense in 2012 (down by a quarter, said ANSO) but the question was whether this was due to the effectiveness of the surge and ISAF and its Afghan allies having beating back the Taleban (ISAF’s interpretation) or because the Taleban were voluntarily keeping their powder dry as ISAF withdrew. “The resources to ramp up previous levels of violence”, ANSO believed in December 2012 (see here), “remain available [to the Taleban] but have simply been stood down, redeployed to other priorities, or engaged in second stage governance/political assignments”.

It is clear now that the violence has worsened this year, compared with 2012 and possibly also with the peak year of 2011. There appears no evidence of President Karzai’s prediction that the insurgency would calm down as the foreign soldiers left (see AAN reporting here). As ANSO noted, in its last published report (for the first quarter of 2013), “the total number of insurgent attacks has grown by 47 per cent, compared with the first quarter of 2012. 25 out of 34 provinces had a higher rate of incidents and 14 even exceeded the peak year 2011.” At that time, ANSO predicted, “the current re-escalation trend will be preserved throughout the entire season, that 2013 is set to become the second most violent year after 2011″, and that the “volume of suicide/complex attacks in Kabul … should be closer to that of 2011 than 2012″. It concluded that these figures already challenged “the linear logic that the shrinking [international military] presence will result in less military determination by the [Taleban]” and that “the downturn [in violence] noted last year was not reflective of a permanently degraded [insurgent] capability but rather linked to the [armed] opposition adopting an operational pause… which since has come to an end”.

Now that ISAF and ANSO have stopped releasing statistics, it is more difficult to assess the war; see AAN’s attempts at analysing the Taleban’s spring offensive here. What we are left with, then, are the UNAMA figures which point indirectly to how the fight is going, through the lens of civilian suffering. Whoever might be up or down, defeated or rallying, the outlook is bleak for Afghan civilians.

For a quick look at more report results see the UNAMA press release here.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace