Rising Civilian Death Toll Points to Taliban, Hezb-e Islami War Crimes
(Kabul) - Civilian deaths from insurgent attacks in Afghanistan increased dramatically over the past 15 months, and many were the result of insurgents’ failure to respect the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 116-page report, “The Human Cost: The Consequences of Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan,”
describes how Afghan insurgent groups, primarily Taliban and Hezb-e Islami forces, sharply escalated bombing and other attacks in 2006 and early 2007. The report is based on dozens of interviews with civilian victims of attacks and their families and a lengthy review of available documents and records.
“Suicide bombings and other insurgent attacks have risen dramatically since 2005, with almost 700 civilians dying last year at the hands of the Taliban and other such groups,” said Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “The insurgents are increasingly committing war crimes, often by directly targeting civilians. Even when they’re aiming at military targets, insurgent attacks are often so indiscriminate that Afghan civilians end up as the main victims.”
The report documents how, in violation of the laws of war, insurgent forces have repeatedly, directly targeted civilians for attack, and how even attacks directed at Afghan and international military forces have often been launched without due regard for civilian life.
Human Rights Watch has previously reported on numerous cases in which Afghan government and international forces in Afghanistan appear to have conducted indiscriminate attacks in violation of the laws of war.
This report explains that 2006 was the deadliest year for civilians in Afghanistan since 2001. Overall, at least 669 Afghan civilians were killed in at least 350 armed attacks, most of which appear to have been intentionally launched at civilians or civilian objects. An additional 52 civilians were killed in insurgent attacks in the first two months of 2007.
Increasingly, the Taliban has been targeting certain groups of civilians, including humanitarian aid workers, journalists, doctors, religious leaders, and civilian government employees, condemning them as spies or collaborators. In 2006, at least 177 civilians were killed in assassinations, and similar ambushes and attacks have continued in 2007. A recent and horrific example was the Taliban’s summary execution of Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi and his driver, Sayed Agha, in violation of the laws of war.
“The Taliban’s murders of Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi and driver Sayed Agha were war crimes,” Mariner said.
The report contains numerous accounts from Afghan civilian victims and their relatives, speaking about insurgent attacks and their consequences. For instance, 9-year-old Sherzad (not her real name), severely injured in a suicide attack in the capital, Kabul, in March 2006, told Human Rights Watch about how shrapnel tore open her stomach, spilling her intestines. “Sometimes I dream about that day – I have nightmares,” Sherzad said. “I thought that I would not survive. I started saying the Kalimah [the martyrs’ prayer] when I was hurt that day, because I thought I was going to die.”
The report describes how insurgents have regularly carried out bombings and suicide attacks on military targets in crowded, highly populated areas, killing combatants and civilians without distinction or causing excessive civilian harm that was disproportionate to expected military advantages. Many Afghans told Human Rights Watch they could not understand why insurgent forces would choose to carry out attacks in civilian areas.
One man, burned in a July 2006 bombing near the Ministry of Justice in Kabul, told Human Rights Watch: “I didn’t see any ISAF people [international forces] that day near the ministry, I just saw my people, Afghan people. What was the target, the people?”
The report documents how insurgent attacks are increasingly affecting the civilian population outside southern and southeastern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s traditional stronghold. In 2006, nearly a third of recorded lethal bomb attacks, many of which caused significant civilian casualties, took place in other areas, including Kabul, the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, and the western city of Herat.
Bombings in 2006 more than doubled compared to 2005. Human Rights Watch counted almost 200 bomb attacks in 2006, killing nearly 500 civilians. Many were illegal under international humanitarian law. Insurgents intentionally targeted civilian objects that served no military purpose, including schools, buses, or bazaars; carried out numerous bombings that killed combatants and civilians without distinction or caused excessive civilian casualties in relation to expected military advantages; and used attacks that appear to have been primarily intended to cause terror among the civilian population. All these methods are illegal under the laws of war.
Suicide attacks by insurgents have been especially deadly for civilians. In 2006 there were at least 136 suicide attacks in Afghanistan, a six-fold increase over 2005. At least 112 of the attacks – a majority – were on military targets, yet most killed more civilians than combatants: approximately 20 other attacks were intentionally aimed at civilians. Suicide attacks by insurgents in 2006 killed at least 272 Afghan civilians and 37 government or international forces: suicide attacks killed eight times as many civilians as combatants.
While suicide attacks are not inherently illegal under the laws of war, those carried out in Afghanistan often were. Human Rights Watch found that suicide attackers frequently failed to pinpoint their attacks on military targets, and often set off explosives in a manner likely to cause indiscriminate or excessive civilian casualties. Moreover, suicide attackers almost always disguised themselves as civilians, violating legal prohibitions against “perfidy” that are meant to uphold the distinction between civilians and combatants during war. Perfidious attacks further endanger civilians: numerous Afghan civilians have been mistakenly shot by international and Afghan government forces who erroneously believed them to be suicide attackers.
The new report also details how attacks on Afghan teachers and schools, especially girls’schools, doubled from their already high levels in 2005. The continuing attacks have forced hundreds of thousands of students out of classrooms. Taliban and other insurgent forces target schools on ideological grounds, claiming they are un-Islamic, or because in rural areas they often are the only symbols of government.
Human Rights Watch noted that military operations by Afghan government and international forces have also caused numerous civilian casualties. At least 230 civilians were killed during coalition or NATO operations in 2006, some of which appear to have violated the laws of war. There is no evidence that coalition forces intentionally target civilians, but in a number of cases international forces have conducted indiscriminate attacks or failed to take adequate precautions to prevent harm to civilians. Human Rights Watch has reported on several of these cases.
Human Rights Watch said today that continuing insecurity and armed conflict in Afghanistan are contributing to already low levels of government and development assistance, and to high levels of continuing displacement. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans are displaced in southern and southeastern provinces, and millions remain as refugees in Iran and Pakistan, reluctant to return to Afghanistan, especially to rural areas, because of poor security and developmental assistance.
“Many Afghans are already struggling to survive,” Mariner said. “The increased insurgent attacks on civilians, especially government and humanitarian workers, are making matters worse.”
Human Rights Watch called on the Taliban, Hezb-e Islami, and associated groups to cease all intentional attacks on civilians and civilian targets, and avoid all attacks which do not distinguish between civilians and combatants or which cause disproportionate harm to civilians. Human Rights Watch also called on insurgents to refrain from using perfidious attacks and stop all acts intended to instill terror among the civilian population.
Human Rights Watch also called on the government of Pakistan to take more effective action against insurgent forces located over the border, which use Pakistani territory to prepare or plan attacks that violate the laws of war.
Finally, Human Rights Watch called on Afghan and international forces to develop better rules of engagement to minimize civilian casualties during hostilities, for instance by locating military installations at greater distances from civilian areas, avoiding sending convoys through crowded areas whenever feasible, and improving how forces respond to real or perceived insurgent attacks to avoid mistakenly targeting civilians.