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Dispatches: Afghanistan’s Worsening Civilian Casualty Horror

Growing Numbers of Children Killed or Injured in Conflict

The conflict in Afghanistan continues to take a worsening toll on the country’s already long-suffering civilian population.

The latest six-monthly report by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) documents a record-setting increase in civilian deaths and injuries. Total civilian casualties were 1,601 dead and 3,565 injured, a rise of 4 percent from January 1 to June 30, 2016, compared to the same period in 2015. Deaths and injuries of children increased 18 percent in the same period; one in three of all civilian victims of the armed conflict in the first half of the year were children. Although women remained highly vulnerable, conflict-related female casualties declined 11 percent in the first half of 2016.

Afghan boys look out from behind a damaged wall after a Taliban attack in Kabul, Afghanistan October 6, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

The Taliban are responsible for most civilian casualties, according to UNAMA. Despite Taliban claims that protecting civilians is one of their main aims, the armed group continues to exclude aid workers and civil servants from its definition of civilian, and pursues a strategy of suicide bombings in civilian areas. The UNAMA report exposes the Taliban’s contempt for the most fundamental principle of international humanitarian law, or the laws of war: the prohibition of deliberate attacks on civilians.

More shocking is that civilian deaths and injuries attributed to the Afghan armed forces and other pro-government forces, primarily from ground engagements – a total of 383 dead and 797 injured – rose 47 percent from January 1 to June 30, compared to the same period last year. Civilian casualties inflicted during aerial operations by both the Afghan Air Force and international military forces more than doubled, to 57 deaths and 104 injured, in the first half of 2016. This raises concerns that as ground engagements and air attacks by Afghan armed forces increase, not all necessary precautions are being taken to minimize civilian harm. There is no evidence that commanders responsible for serious laws-of-war violations are being held accountable.

The Taliban need to cease their practice of targeting civilians, as defined by the laws of war. The Afghan government should also take substantive measures to change its forces’ battlefield conduct. The military is developing a national strategy to mitigate civilian harm, but this should include clear rules of engagement and directives, particularly in limiting the use of artillery, bombs, and other weapons with wide explosive effects in populated areas. The government should also stop arming militias, including national “uprising” forces that fall outside the regular chain of command. Such militias have a dismal record of abuse, including summary executions of non-combatants, and they have exacerbated tensions rather than providing security for the civilian population.

The appalling toll of civilian casualties in Afghanistan will only continue unless both sides take urgently needed corrective measures.

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