- By Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
With American troops preparing to leave Afghanistan and the Taliban stepping up its attacks across the country, Afghan civilians are increasingly getting caught in the crossfire. According to newly released United Nations data, the number of civilians who were injured or killed in Afghanistan rose by 24 percent over the first half of 2014, compared to the same period in last year. In total, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 1,564 civilian deaths and 3,289 injuries during the six-month span.
The U.N. data indicates that ground combat has overtaken improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as the leading cause of civilian deaths. Ground combat — which can include the use of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms — was responsible for 39 percent of civilian deaths and injuries in 2014, accounting for 474 civilian deaths and 1,427 injuries. The number of casualties caused by ground combat rose 89 percent from the previous year.
And while IEDs are no longer the leading killer of Afghan civilians, civilian deaths and injuries from the homemade bombs are also on the rise. IEDs were responsible for 1,463 casualties in the first half of 2014, a 7 percent increase from 2013 and the highest number of casualties from IEDs in any six-month time span since 2009. Suicide attacks by anti-government forces, the third-leading cause of civilian casualties, caused 156 deaths and 427 injuries.
This increased combat has hit women and children particularly hard. The first six months of 2014 saw civilian casualties among children and women spike by 34 and 24 percent, respectively. The U.N. report found that ground combat accounted for 112 child deaths and 408 injuries, while close fighting killed 64 women and injured 192 in Afghanistan.
Anti-government attacks caused 988 civilian casualties, 553 of which were attributable to the Taliban. Afghan security forces accidentally caught 274 civilians in the crossfire, while 38 casualties resulted from cross-border shelling; the U.N. report was unable to directly attribute the culprit of 599 civilian casualties sustained from ground combat. Looking more closely at Taliban-led attacks, the report found that of the 147 attacks for which the Taliban publicly claimed responsibility and which resulted in civilian casualties, 69 directly targeted civilians, including tribal elders, civilian government officials, and justice system workers. The remaining 76 were directed at military targets, which indiscriminately caused civilian deaths and injuries.
The number of civilian casualties caused by the Taliban and other anti-government forces doubled since 2009, when UNAMA began collecting such data.
The findings come amid a shift in Afghanistan’s security landscape. President Obama’s announcement that American troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by 2016 has placed greater responsibility on the Afghan National Army to maintain security in the country. The increase in civilian casualties caused by ground combat may be one indication that the Taliban is more willing to engage in direct firefights with the Afghan army. While the Taliban would often avoid getting in firefights with well-trained American troops — by, for example, relying more heavily on IEDs — the insurgents may favor their odds in a firefight against the less competent Afghan army.
Moreover, fraud allegations from the country’s recent runoff election threaten to contribute further to instability in Afghanistan. Preliminary results released Monday handed Ashraf Ghani a commanding lead over his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, whose supporters have threatened to form a parallel government that wouldn’t recognize Ghani as the country’s duly elected president.
The Taliban, meanwhile, continue to challenge Afghan and international security forces. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber killed 16 people in Parwan province, north of Kabul. The victims included four Czech soldiers and Afghan civilians, among them children.