Last year was deadliest yet for civilians in Afghanistan, says UN

According to the latest UN report on Afghanistan, 2009 proved to be the worst year in terms of the civilian death toll. The conflict has also intensified and spread to areas previously considered safe.

Kanaga Raja

THE year 2009 proved to be the deadliest year yet for civilians in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, according to new statistics released on 13 January by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). The 2,412 civilian deaths between 1 January and 31 December 2009 represented an increase of 14% on the 2,118 civilian deaths recorded in 2008.

In its annual report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict in Afghanistan, UNAMA said that of the 2,412 civilian deaths reported last year, 1,630 (67%) were attributed to anti-government elements (AGEs), while 596 (25%) were attributed to pro-government forces (PGF).

'Anti-Government elements remain responsible for the largest proportion of civilian deaths, killing three times as many civilians as pro-Government forces. It is vital that determined efforts are now made by the insurgency to put into effect the Taliban "Code of Conduct" that calls on them to protect the lives of civilians,' said Norah Niland, Chief Human Rights Officer at UNAMA.

'The conflict has intensified and spread into areas that were previously considered safe,' she added.

According to the UN report, the intensification and spread of the armed conflict in Afghanistan continued to take a heavy toll on civilians throughout 2009. At least 5,978 civilians were killed and injured last year, the highest number of civilian casualties recorded since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Afghans in the southern part of the country, where the conflict is the most intense, were the most severely affected. Nearly half of all civilian casualties, namely 45%, occurred in the southern region.

However, says the UN report, the south-east, east, west and central regions also reported high numbers of civilian casualties. The conflict has spread into what were previously relatively tranquil areas, including the north-east, which had previously seen limited anti-government element activity.

Casualty toll

AGEs remain responsible for the largest proportion of civilian deaths. Civilian deaths reportedly caused by the armed opposition increased by 41% between 2008 and 2009, from 1,160 to 1,630. Deaths resulting from insurgent-related activities in 2009 were a ratio of approximately three to one as compared to casualties caused by PGF.

According to the report, 1,054 civilians were victims of suicide and other improvised explosive device (IED) attacks by AGEs and 225 were victims of targeted assassinations and executions.

Pro-government forces - Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and international military (IM) forces - were responsible for 596 recorded deaths - 25% of the total civilian casualties recorded in 2009, the report says, noting that this is a reduction of 28% from the total number of deaths attributed to pro-government forces in 2008.

It attributes the decrease to measures taken by international military forces to conduct operations in a manner that reduces the risk posed to civilians.

In the context of pro-government military operations, air strikes claimed the most civilian lives, with 359 killed (61%). Search and seizure operations claimed the second largest number of civilian lives, with 98 killed (16%). Together, these tactics accounted for 77% of the civilian deaths attributed to PGF actions.

Notwithstanding some positive trends, says the report, actions by PGF continued to take an adverse toll on civilians. UNAMA recorded 359 civilians killed due to aerial attacks, which constitutes 61% of the number of civilian deaths attributed to pro-government forces. This is 15% of the total number of civilians killed in the armed conflict during 2009.

The report notes that IM forces and ANSF also conducted a number of ground operations that caused civilian casualties, including a large number of search and seizure operations. These often involved excessive use of force, destruction to property and cultural insensitivity, particularly towards women.

The UN mission also expressed concern over the location of military bases, especially those that are situated within, or close to, areas where civilians are concentrated. It said that the location and proximity of such bases to civilians runs the risk of increasing the dangers faced by civilians, as such military installations are often targeted by the armed opposition.

Civilians have been killed and injured as a result of their proximity to military bases, and homes and property have been damaged or destroyed. This can lead to loss of livelihood and income, it added.

The location of military facilities in or near residential neighbourhoods has also had the effect of generating fear and mistrust within communities and antipathy towards IM forces given their experience of being caught in the crossfire or being the victims of AGE attacks on government or pro-government military installations.

The report further notes that international military forces did take strategic and specific steps to minimise civilian casualties in 2009. The change in command at the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), clearer command structures, and a new tactical directive have all contributed to the efforts by ISAF to reduce the impact of the armed conflict on civilians.

However, a Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell, established in 2008 in ISAF (with a similar tracking mechanism for US forces in Afghanistan), has not proved very effective in addressing UNAMA concerns in a timely manner, says the report.

Furthermore, with the expected surge of more than 30,000 troops, anticipated to be completed by mid-2010, the UN mission remained concerned that the increase in fighting could result in an increase in civilian casualties.

The mission was also concerned over the detention and ill-treatment of minors allegedly associated with armed groups by both the ANSF and the international military forces. There have been detailed reports of children detained for up to a year in government detention facilities as well as reports that children have been held at the Bagram Theatre Internment Facility (BTIF) without due process; in some cases, they allegedly suffered ill-treatment.

Violent and deadly

The report by the UN mission concluded that 2009 was the most violent and deadly year since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, witnessing the highest number of civilian deaths and injuries since UNAMA started systematically recording civilian casualties in 2007.

The UN called upon all parties to the conflict to respect and uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law in order to minimise the impact of the conflict upon civilians.

Given an anticipated increase in the incidence of armed conflict in 2010, it is incumbent on all stakeholders to effectively protect all civilians, it stressed.

'Ensuring the safety and welfare of the civilian population must come first. Anti-Government elements must realise that they too have obligations under international law while pro-Government forces must step up efforts to ensure that every measure is taken to protect civilians during the conduct of military operations. The United Nations calls for international law to be respected to minimise the impact of the conflict on civilians as we begin 2010,' said Niland of UNAMA.                                               

Kanaga Raja is Editor of the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS). This article is reproduced from SUNS (No. 6842, 15 January 2010), which is published by the Third World Network.

*Third World Resurgence No. 233, January 2010, pp 36-37