When I was in Kabul a few days ago, I caught up with an old Afghan friend, who remarked that the relentless violence in Afghanistan is hard for outsiders to comprehend. The mounting toll of dead and wounded has become abstract, he said, hard to attach to individual lives lost, and too easily forgotten as each new atrocity grabs the headlines.
Yesterday, he told me he had lost a close friend in the latest suicide bombing in Kabul, making his words seem prophetic. The October 20 attack on a Shia mosque killed at least 65 people and wounded 87. Bombings targeting Afghanistan’s minority Shia population at mosques and religious ceremonies are on the rise this year, with at least 149 people dead and more than 300 injured since January. The Islamic State of Khorason Province (ISKP), the local franchise of the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is believed responsible for most of these. That same day, October 20, another attack on a mosque, this one in Ghor province, killed up to 33 people.
The mosque attacks came just a week after the latest United Nations report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and it seems 2017 may be the deadliest since the UN began keeping track in 2007. The report says deaths from suicide bombings and other insurgent attacks have increased compared to 2016, along with targeted attacks on individuals linked to the government, such as judges and religious figures. It also said that civilian casualties caused by the Taliban and ISKP during ground fighting are up 7 percent.
However, the UN also reported a 52 percent rise in civilian casualties from Afghan military and US airstrikes, with many women and children among the 205 dead and 261 injured. It’s clear that the Afghan government and its US ally need to do much more to protect civilians in such operations.
There was one bright spot in the otherwise grim report: a 37 percent fall in civilian casualties by government forces during ground fighting, a figure that may actually reflect the static nature of the current front lines. Acting Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Bahrami told Human Rights Watch that the decline was in line with a new national policy on reducing civilian harm. The litmus test on the success of this policy will be if civilian casualty numbers from all Afghan government operations – as well as international ones supporting them – decline.