Since early 2006, Taliban, Hezb-e Islami, and other armed groups in Afghanistan have carried out an increasing number of armed attacks that either target civilians or are launched without regard for the impact on civilian life. While going about ordinary activitieswalking down the street or riding in a busmany Afghan civilians have faced sudden and terrifying violence: shootings, ambushes, bombings, or other violent attacks.
These insurgent attacks have caused terrible and profound harm to the Afghan civilian population. Attacks have killed and maimed mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, parents, and children, leaving behind widows, widowers, and orphans. Many civilians have been specifically targeted by the insurgents, including aid workers, doctors, day laborers, mechanics, students, clerics, and civilian government employees such as teachers and engineers. Attacks have also left lasting physical and psychological scars on victims and eyewitnesses, and caused tremendous pain and suffering to surviving family members.
This report is about insurgent attacks and their consequences. It is based on accounts provided by witnesses, victims, and victims relatives, and a thorough review of records and reports of incidents in 2006 and through the first two months of 2007. The report also includes an assessment of statements by insurgent groups themselves, who often claim responsibility for attacks that kill and injure large numbers of civilians.
Anti-government forces are not the only forces responsible for civilian deaths and injuries in Afghanistan. At least 230 civilians were killed during coalition or NATO operations in 2006, some of which appear to have violated the laws of war. While there is no evidence suggesting that coalition or NATO forces have intentionally directed attacks against civilians, in a number of cases international forces have conducted indiscriminate attacks or otherwise failed to take adequate precautions to prevent harm to civilians. Human Rights Watch has reported on several of these cases and will continue to monitor the conduct of such forces. But in this report we focus on the civilian victims of insurgent attacks, and on the effects of these attacks on civilian life in Afghanistan.
Civilian deaths from insurgent attacks skyrocketed in 2006. Though exact casualty numbers from previous years are not available, increases in overall numbers of insurgent attacks in 2006 indicate that 2006 was the deadliest year for civilians in Afghanistan since 2001. Roadside bombs and other bomb attacks more than doubled since the previous year. Human Rights Watch counted 189 bomb attacks in 2006, killing nearly 500 civilians. Another 177 civilians were killed in shootings, assassinations, or ambushes.
Overall, at least 669 Afghan civilians were killed in at least 350 separate armed attacks by anti-government forces in 2006. (Almost half of these attacks appear to have been intentionally launched at civilians or civilian objects.) Hundreds of civilians also suffered serious injuries, including burns, severe lacerations, broken bones, and severed limbs. The total number of civilian casualtiesAfghans killed or wounded in insurgent attackswas well over 1,000 for the year.
Suicide bombings, once very rare in Afghanistan, now occur on a regular basis. At least 136 suicide attacks occurred in Afghanistan during 2006a six-fold increase over the previous year. (This count is a subset of the 189 bomb attacks noted above.) At least 803 Afghan civilians were killed or injured in these suicide attacks (272 killed and 531 injured). At least 80 of these attacksa clear majoritywere on military targets, yet these 80 attacks caused significant civilian casualties, killing five times as many civilians as combatants (181 civilians versus 37 combatants).
Civilian deaths and injuries from insurgent attacks have continued in 2007. In the first two months of 2007, insurgent forces have carried out at least 25 armed attacks resulting in civilian casualties, including suicide attacks and other bombings, shootings, kidnappings, and executions. These attacks have killed at least 52 Afghan civilians and injured 83 more.
Insurgent attacks have also done significant damage to civilian property. In addition to bombings and other attacks that resulted in damaged shops, buildings, and infrastructure, insurgents specifically targeted local schools, which are often the only symbol of government in remote areas. In 2006, bombing and arson attacks on Afghan schools doubled, from 91 reported attacks in 2005 to 190 attacks in 2006. Attacks have continued into 2007.
Civilian casualties during armed conflict are not necessarily the result of violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war). The nature of modern armed conflict is such that civilians are frequently killed and injured during fighting that is nonetheless in accordance with the rules of warfare.
However, Human Rights Watch investigations found that many civilian casualties from insurgent attacks in Afghanistan in 2006 were intentional or avoidable. Insurgent forces regularly targeted civilians, or attacked military targets and civilians without distinction or with the knowledge that attacks would cause disproportionate harm to civilians.
Such attacks violate international humanitarian law. Serious violations of international humanitarian law are considered war crimes, and are subject to the jurisdiction of the R0me statute of the International Criminal Court, which Afghanistan ratified in 2003.
There is little question that responsibility for most attacks lies with the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Taliban spokesmen have claimed responsibility for over two-thirds of recorded bombing attacksprimarily those in the southern and southeastern provincesalthough in some cases their claims may be unfounded boasts. As for attacks in eastern and northern areas of Afghanistan, there is significant evidence of involvement by the Hezb-e Islami network under the command of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, which has been increasingly active in insurgent activities. Other groups associated with Taliban and Hezb-e Islami forces, including Jaish al Muslemin and forces under Jalaluddin Haqqani, are likely responsible for other attacks in eastern areas and districts around Khost and Jalalabad.
Insurgent forces in Afghanistan often claim that their military operations are generally lawful, or that the targeting of civilians is legally permissible.
Media statements by various Taliban commanders and spokesmen, and documents attributed to the Taliban shura (council), indicate that Taliban leaders consider it permissible to attack Afghan government workers and teachers, employees of non-governmental organizations, or anyone who supports the government of President Hamid Karzai. Taliban spokesmen have claimed responsibility for various kidnappings and killings of foreign humanitarian aid workers, claiming that they are killed because they are spying for the Americans or for NATO or coalition forces.2
Such statements are blatantly contrary to international law, which prohibits all intentional attacks on civilians not directly involved in hostilities, and they implicate Taliban leaders in war crimes. Such statements also facilitate and encourage lower level commanders to continue violating the laws of war.
While insurgent spokespersons and commanders have at times expressed concern for the security of civilians, these statements are unconvincing given the record of insurgents detailed in this report. Many Afghans, referring to the high number of civilians who have been killed in insurgent attacks, told Human Rights Watch that they considered insurgents claims of concern preposterous. Moreover, when Taliban and other insurgent leaders make these statements, the focus typically is placed on civilians who do not work for the government or NGOs; thus, statements of concern primarily serve to highlight insurgents disregard for the security of other civilians, such as civilian government workers, whom they do not consider to be innocent. Expressing concerns for some civilians does not justify unlawful acts against others.
Insurgent groups in Afghanistan have carried out the following types of illegal attacks in recent years:
Some insurgent attacks also appear to be primarily intended to spread terror among the civilian population, a tactic that violates international humanitarian law. Insurgents have targeted civilian government personnel and humanitarian workers, apparently with the intent of instilling fear among the broader population and as a warning not to work in similar capacities, and have delivered numerous messages and announcements threatening Afghans to not work for government offices or non-governmental humanitarian organizations. Insurgent groups have also carried out several bombings in civilian areas which appear to be specifically intended to terrorize local populations. In addition, anti-government forces have regularly threatened civilian populations by posting written documents, so-called night-letters, warning civilians not to cooperate with the government or with international forces.
During many attacks, particularly suicide bombings, insurgents have disguised themselves as civilians, in violation of the international legal prohibition against perfidy. Perfidious attacks are ones in which a combatant feigns protected status, such as being a civilian, in order to carry out an attack. Such attacks have contributed to a general blurring of the distinction between civilians and combatants in Afghanistan, which in turn has raised the risk for civilians of being mistakenly targeted during military operations carried out by government and coalition forces. Notably, NATO forces in the last months of 2006 appear to have repeatedly mistakenly opened fire on civilian vehicles approaching convoys, erroneously believing, based in part on past perfidious attacks, that they were suicide attackers.
International humanitarian law requires combatants, in all military operations, to take all feasible precautions to avoid, or at least minimize, loss of civilian life and property. Yet insurgents have conducted many intentional attacks on civilians, which are clear war crimes. They have also attacked military objectives causing indiscriminate or disproportionate harm to civilians in violation of the laws of war.
Many recorded insurgent attacks took place in the midst of crowded civilian areas, or in close proximity to residential and commercial areas. In addition, bombers in many cases used very powerful explosives, the blast effects of which would be known to cause considerable loss of civilian life and damage to civilian buildings beyond the destruction or neutralization of the military target.
Often such attacks have involved suicide bombers on foot or in vehicles. While a suicide bomber is theoretically a very precise weapon, Human Rights Watch found that in practice suicide bombers frequently detonated their explosives prematurely or inaccurately, and without regard to minimizing civilian loss. Also, these attacks almost invariably involved the attacker feigning civilian status, which greatly increases risks to civilians. The willingness of Taliban and other insurgent commanders to continue to deploy in highly populated areas a weaponsuicide bombersthat in practice is highly indiscriminate amounts to a serious violation of international humanitarian law, a war crime.
Human Rights Watch is also concerned about the actions of government and international forces in protecting civilian populations from the effects of hostilities. International humanitarian law requires all parties to a conflict to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians under their control against the effects of attacks. That includes avoiding locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas. These obligations apply to both insurgents and Afghan government and international forces. Thus, while Afghan government and international forces are responsible for providing security for the civilian population, they should also act to avoid placing civilians at risk in the event of insurgent attacks, such as unnecessarily placing military installations in populated areas or patrolling in crowded places.
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Beyond the deaths and the injuries, Afghans have been deeply scarred emotionally by insurgent attacks.
Sharzad, a 9-year old girl, was severely injured in a Kabul bombing in March 2006 aimed at a senior member of the Afghan parliament: her stomach was torn open, spilling her intestines. Sharzad told Human Rights Watch that the bombing occurred just after she left a shrine where she had just offered prayers; she was walking with her brother.
Ghulam, from Kabul, told Human Rights Watch about how his morning commute in July 2006 was turned into a nightmare by a bombing on the bus he was riding:
Attacks have caused immense grief among surviving relatives. Mohammad Hashim, whose wife Bibi Sadaat was shot and killed in a May 2006 ambush in northern Afghanistan, likely by insurgent forces, lamented his loss:
Insurgent attacks on civilians have also severely harmed the fabric of daily life in Afghanistan. Besides the obvious and primary effects of attacksdeath and injury to hundreds of civiliansattacks have caused broader harms. Ordinary Afghansfarmers, taxi drivers, buildersare already struggling with broken local economies, a lack of employment, and inadequate health care, education and social services. Since many attacks have been launched at humanitarian and development workers and government officials, many vital government and development programs have been suspended in unstable areas. The result is that already low levels of development and humanitarian assistance have dropped even lower, making life for Afghan civilians even more difficult.
Many Afghan families have been displaced by the widespread and seemingly random violence, and refugees abroad appear hesitant to return to increasingly unsafe areas. Over 100,000 Afghans have been displaced because of security problems and hostilities in southern districts in the last year. Hundreds of thousands of refugees in Iran and Pakistan remain unwilling to return to their homes in these areas, in part because of security problems; most returns in recent years have been to urban centers like the capital, Kabul. And many others have avoided return. Over 3 million refugees remain outside of Afghanistan.
Armed conflict and displacement has been especially serious in and around southern and southeastern provinces, including Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgon, Zabul, Paktia, Paktika, and Kunar. These are areas in which Taliban and other insurgent forces have tribal or family roots, or other base of support, and which are close to the Pakistan border. Over 70 percent of recorded lethal bomb attacks in 2006 occurred in these provinces. Many Afghans and humanitarian workers consider the rural districts in these areas to be conflict zones. Governmental, developmental and humanitarian assistance in these areas is almost non-existent.
It is not surprising that these areas are particularly unstable. There is strong evidence that insurgent groups operate freely in areas across the border, in Pakistans tribal areas, with minimal interference from Pakistani authorities. Many insurgent groups regularly cross the Pakistan border and take refuge in border areas or even in Pakistani cities like Chitral, Peshawar, and Quetta. There are increasing and detailed reports about Pakistani government officials at various levels providing assistance or support to insurgent groups active in Afghanistan, even as bomb attacks and other violence have begun to spread into Pakistani territory. Some local Pakistani officials have even openly admitted to providing support.
In this context, Pakistans continuing insistence that it is vigorously cracking down on insurgent groups has become impossible to take seriously. However, it would be erroneous to suggest that all of Afghanistans instability is connected to insurgents having easy sanctuary in Pakistan. Insurgent-related activity (and its accompanying problems) is not limited to southern and southeastern provinces on the Pakistan border. On the contrary, anti-government forces have carried out numerous bombings and killings in northern and western provinces, and in Kabul city, and general instability has affected life in almost all parts of the country. Almost one-in-three insurgent attacks in which civilians have been killed have taken place outside of the border areas. Insurgent groups are operating with ease throughout many parts of Afghanistan.
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Many Afghans complained to Human Rights Watch about intentional attacks on civilians and about the high toll on civilians when military targets were attacked.
Mohammad Aresh, quoted at the beginning of this report, the victim of a July 5, 2006 bombing in Kabul that appeared to have targeted civilians, could not understand why insurgents would carry out such an attack. Whats my mistake? he told Human Rights Watch. Why does the Taliban want to kill me?
Habibullah, who lost a brother in a May 2006 bombing in Kabul that appeared to have been meant for a passing NATO convoy, condemned those who carried out the attack: The bastardsthey blew themselves up. They did not kill the foreigners. They only killed innocent people. It was like they tried to kill children.
1 Human Rights Watch interview with Mohammad Yusef Aresh, Kabul, September 6, 2006.
2 Statement of Taliban spokesperson Qari Mohammad Yousuf to a Reuters correspondent. See Afghans launch hunt for kidnapped Albanians, Reuters, March 12, 2006. This statement concerned four kidnapped Macedonian citizens (initially and erroneously reported to be Albanian) who were executed by the Taliban a few days later. After the four were killed, Yousef told the BBC: We will kill anyone who is helping the Americans. Afghans killed on hostage mission, BBC, March 17, 2006.