The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan’s civilians in the crosshairs

Afghanistan’s civilians in the crosshairs

The United Nations semi-annual protection of civilians report released Thursday is a chilling rebuttal to illusions that Afghanistan is moving toward greater stability. With nearly 3,600 killed and injured – the highest civilian casualty rate since the war began – the statistics are a grim reality check to over-optimistic reports by international military and civilian leaders that their strategy is successfully disrupting insurgent activities.

As has been true of each of their reports for the last three years, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported an increase in civilian casualties and incidents of violence, across an even wider portion of the country. 1,462 civilians were killed in the first six months of 2011, 15 percent up from the same period in 2010. Almost 20 civilians were killed or injured each day in the first half of the year.

The vast majority of these casualties (80 percent) were caused by insurgents, and the U.N. report illustrates — often in graphic terms — the brutal tactics that were used. Almost half of civilian deaths are due to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and suicide attacks alone, which have become more deadly and more ruthless in the way they are carried out. IEDs and suicide bombs were used against hospitals, against funerary processions or sites (as with Thursday’s attack against the funeral of President Karzai’s brother), and at least once, against a mosque. In one incident described in the report, insurgents gave an 8-year-old girl a package to carry toward a police vehicle, and then blew her up when she got near.  Such tactics are abhorrent not only under international humanitarian law but also under Islamic law, as the report notes.

Equally concerning is the number of people assassinated in the last six months by insurgents. Insurgent groups (often, but not always, the Taliban) killed hundreds of government officials, teachers, clerics, or others tangentially affiliated to Afghan or international officials. Though the death toll from these assassinations is lower than those caused by explosive devices, they can be even more destabilizing, because they terrorize communities and deter them from going about their normal lives.

This assassination campaign has been under way for more than a year and a half, and is slowly but continuously eliminating the very local and provincial officials who are supposed to be taking charge of the country as part of the security transition. At a time when the Afghan government and its international allies are pushing for talks with the Taliban, these deliberate attacks on civilians – some of which may constitute war crimes -call into question the willingness and good intention of the many insurgents groups to enter into such talks.

The level of nation-wide violence reflected in the U.N. report makes it difficult to trust statements by international military and civilian officials that Afghanistan is on the road to a stable transition. Recently, the same officials claimed that their increased counter-terrorism campaign, most prominent in the ramping up of night raids, has insurgents on the run. With COIN long out of vogue, the Obama Administration appears to have embraced targeted kill-and-capture operations as the future of guaranteeing U.S. and Afghan security interests in the longer term.  The U.N. report offers a different picture of the future: even with the highest level of targeted operations since 2002 (at least 20 night raids a night), insurgents have still made 2011 the bloodiest year on record.

In the last few months, I’ve visited many of the communities that bear daily witness to this insurgent violence – from Helmand province in southern Afghanistan to Laghman in the east, even to communities sitting right in Kabul’s backyard. Getting around Afghanistan is not easy these days. In fact despite "fragile" gains in the south, most places in Afghanistan are exponentially more dangerous to travel in than in the past, including areas of the country that a year or two ago were relatively stable. 

Afghans I met are worried, and this U.N. report gives the clearest evidence of why. Despite the rhetoric about progress toward a stable handover of security, civilians see their personal security declining daily. As the Afghan government and its international allies seek avenues for talking to insurgents, an immediate end to these unnecessary civilian deaths needs to be their top priority. 

Erica Gaston is a human rights lawyer for the Open Society Foundations, specializing in civilian casualty issues. She is based in Washington, DC.