The annual United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, which breaks down the data on civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the previous year, chronicles a changing–though no less dangerous–war.
This year’s report notes a 4.22 percent decrease in civilian deaths (from 3,701 to 3,545), but a 9.13 percent increase in injuries (from 6,833 to 7,457)–or an overall increase in casualties of 4.44 percent (10,534 in 2014 to 11,002 in 2015). More than in previous years, women and children are increasingly caught between militants and government forces. According to the UNAMA, in 2015 there was a 37 percent increase in women and casualties, and a 14 percent increase in child casualties.
In the report’s press release, Nicolas Haysom, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of the UNAMA, says “This report records yet another rise in the number of civilians hurt or killed. The harm done to civilians is totally unacceptable.”
Anti-government elements–a term which the UN uses for all militant groups involved in armed conflict with the government, including Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, groups which identify with ISIS, and many others–were responsible for over 60 percent of civilian casualties in 2015. Meanwhile, 17 percent of civilian casualties in 2015 were attributed to Pro-Government Forces–mostly Afghan national security forces (14 percent). That said, casualties attributed to anti-government elements decreased by 10 percent in 2015 and those attributed to pro-government forces increased by 28 percent.
More and more, Afghan civilians are being caught in the crossfire between militants and government forces. Casualties caused by ground engagements are on the rise while those due to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have decreased, though IEDs remain the second leading cause of civilian casualties. The rise in casualties overall, however, “mainly stemmed from increases in complex and suicide attacks and targeted and deliberate killings by Anti-Government Elements, increasing civilian casualties caused by pro-government forces during ground engagements and aerial operations, and rising numbers of civilians caught in crossfire between the parties to the conflict, most notably in Kunduz province.”
After declining between 2012 and 2014, the number of casualties caused by air operations leaped by 83 percent. The report noted that the reversal was largely due to a single incident: the bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz in early October 2015 which resulted in more than 80 casualties (42 deaths and 43 injured).
As Kate Clark for the Afghan Analysts Network points out, “The single biggest factor affecting the Afghan conflict in 2015 was the almost complete absence of international forces on the battlefield.” She writes that in 2015, “it was the Taleban driving the conflict, with the ANSF largely trying to defend territory.” The UNAMA notes that in response to this shift, Afghan security forces have “often relied on heavy or explosive weapons defensively or as weapons of first resort.” To be clear, Afghan security forces have themselves experienced massive casualties (deaths, injuries, but also desertions) but in response have made tactical decisions that have led to an increase in civilian casualties.
A further troubling development has been Kabul’s decision to arm pro-government local groups (separate from Afghan Local Police units) in an effort to spark “national uprising movements” in areas where government forces have less of a presence. These groups, however, exist outside of Afghan laws and outside the chain of command of Afghan security forces, they capitalize on personal connections to the government and lack training not just in weapons but in Afghanistan’s laws–all of which are recipes for abuse and mistakes.
The UNAMA’s 99-page report offers greater details, but data alone cannot explain or fully describe the horrors of war for Afghan civilians. In the report’s opening pages, Haysom is quoted as saying “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.”