Afghan Civilian Casualties on the Rise, Says U.N.

A new report by the U.N. details a bloody year for Afghan civilians

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Mauricio Lima / The New York Times

Afghan men look at photographs of people killed in the last three decades of conflict in the country at an exhibition in the ruins of the Darul Aman palace in Kabul, Dec. 10, 2013.

The 12th year of the war in Afghanistan saw a sharp increase in the number of civilians killed, as more than eight people every day died in 2013, one of the bloodiest years since the U.S.-led 2001 military invasion.

This week, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan released its annual report documenting civilian casualties in the conflict. In 2013, civilian casualties rose 14 percent over 2012, as more civilians were caught in the middle of fighting between pro and “anti-government elements.” There were 8,615 casualties in 2013; 2,959 were killed and another 5,656 were wounded. Since 2009, the war has claimed the lives of a reported 14,064 civilians in the country.

According to the report, many of the casualties last year are part of a “new trend” of civilians being caught in the middle of the fighting. The numbers also reflect the shift in responsibility for fighting from coalition to Afghan troops. Last year, international forces caused only 3 percent of civilian casualties, compared with 8 percent caused by Afghan troops, a sharp increase in the percentage of civilians killed or wounded by Afghan military fire.

Anti-government forces – “those who identify as ‘Taliban,'” as well as more than half a dozen armed groups that operate under a variety of labels –caused 74 percent of civilian casualties in 2013. Five percent of casualties were unattributed, “resulting mainly from explosive remnants of war” – the hundreds of thousands of landmines that have littered the country since the Soviet invasion in 1979.

More women and children were killed in 2013 than in any year since 2009, with most of the deaths coming from explosive devices. “Increased indiscriminate and unlawful use of IEDs by anti-government elements killed and injured thousands of Afghan civilians as they went about their daily lives,” the report says. “What is needed is for the Taliban to stop deliberately attacking civilians and using IEDs indiscriminately, and to change their definition of ‘civilian’ and lawful targets in line with international humanitarian law,” Ján Kubiš, head of the U.N. assistance mission told CNN.

The report makes several recommendations for elements on all sides of the conflict. It calls on anti-government elements—chiefly, the Taliban—to stop indiscriminately using IEDs and targeting civilians, and to cease all attacks in and from civilian locations. It recommends that the coalition increase support for Afghan forces; map, mark and clear unexploded ordnance from international bases; and conduct a review of the considerations taken before calling in airstrikes. 

This week, the coalition got a new commander who would oversee any changes that might take place in the last year of the war. On Saturday, U.S. Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson took the post as number two commander in Afghanistan, the officer who is responsible for daily operations. As more coalition forces withdraw, Anderson said the first priority is securing April’s elections, then completing the rest of the handover. “Right now the immediacy is supporting the elections and earlier fighting season and getting through all that through the summer,” he said, according to the Guardian. “Then based on whatever number we have to deal with, we will adjust.We’ll deal with each step along the way.”

The report calls on the Afghan government to implement a national counter-IED strategy and take more concrete measures to reduce civilian casualties, including training and resourcing Afghan forces. Putting more effort into training and developing Afghan troops is, arguably, the best measure the government can take to reduce future casualties caused by its operations. Coalition troops who are training Afghan forces will play a large role in that development, as would, presumably, any foreign troops who remain in the country beyond 2014.

But because Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement, there is no clear number of troops that will stay: perhaps 10,000; perhaps none. The April elections will bring a new president who will set the direction of a post-Karzai Afghanistan. If he signs off on keeping international troops and focuses on developing the country’s security forces, the elections may mark a turning point in more ways than one.