Civilian casualties mounting as Taliban begin spring offensive
KABUL — Nearly 60 civilians were killed in the past week in Afghanistan in several bloody incidents, the most recent on Monday morning when a crowded bus struck a bomb in the eastern province of Wardak.
The high incidence of civilian casualties seems to be a continuation of an upward trend noted in a February report from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) that showed a 13 percent increase in non-combatant deaths in the last six months of 2012 compared to the year before.
The timing of the most recent incidents is particularly ominous, since it coincides with the return of insurgents in spring from their winter redoubts across the border in Pakistan.
“We’re very concerned about the rising civilian casualties in the first several months of 2013,” UNAMA human rights director Georgette Gagnon said. “We’re calling on the parties to increase their efforts to protect civilians.”
The Taliban have made pledges to avoid civilian casualties, but a violent siege Wednesday at a courthouse in Farah province in western Afghanistan left 36 civilians dead and Monday’s bus bombing killed at least nine people, including one child, and wounded nearly two dozen.
The bus was traveling from neighboring Ghazni district on the way to Kabul when it hit the bomb around 8:30 a.m., Wardak provincial governor spokesman Attaullah Khogyani said. He said four children are among the wounded and that 14 passengers are in serious condition.
“We believe the bomb was placed by insurgents and those who don’t want a peaceful Afghanistan and who want to spread terror amongst the people,” Khogyani said.
The Taliban denied responsibility for the bus attack, though roadside bomb attacks are a common insurgent tactic. Many heavy vehicles have triggered bombs intended for coalition and Afghan military forces.
Two NATO airstrikes also may have killed civilians this week, the latest coming on Saturday when local officials say an attack on an insurgent compound in Kunar province killed 10 children and a woman as well as several fighters. (A spokesman for the district governor had initially reported 11 children were killed.) Another strike in Ghazni province Wednesday reportedly killed two civilians, along with four Afghan police officers.
A coalition spokesman said allied forces always take precautions to avoid civilian casualties and that there is a team on the ground investigating the reports from Kunar province.
While civilian casualties caused by NATO have remained a major flashpoint for relations between Washington and Kabul, the vast majority of civilian deaths has been caused by insurgents, according to U.N. data. The UNAMA report blamed 81 percent of civilian casualties in 2012 on insurgents.
The Taliban say they do not recognize definitions of civilians under international law, thus justifying attacks on non-military government personnel. The courthouse attack in Farah, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility, killed many employees, judges and lawyers.
“We are not committed to that law,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said. “We have our own religion and our own Sharia law,” referring to Islamic law.
Insurgents in other guerrilla wars — including Vietnam, Sri Lanka and in Afghanistan itself during the Soviet occupation — have regularly targeted officials of the government they were seeking to oust.
Gagnon urged Taliban leaders to abide by international standards.
“It’s the law that decides who is a civilian,” Gagnon said. “They might not agree with it, but they’re bound by it, and that means what they do is something they can be prosecuted for. And targeting civilians is a war crime.”
As troops continue to withdraw from Afghanistan ahead of the Dec. 31, 2014, deadline for all international combat forces to leave the country, Afghan political analysts believe the country will see more such bloodshed in the coming months.
“The insurgents will try to show that after 2014 this government will be eliminated,” military and political analyst Arsala Jamal said. “Definitely, there will be more civilian casualties and their [insurgents’] attacks will increase.”
Wahid Mujhda, a political analyst and writer, said NATO has more to lose from civilian casualties, as Afghans tend to hold them to a higher standard than insurgents.
“Unfortunately, when civilian deaths happen, both sides try to accuse each other of causing those deaths,” he said. “Both are trying to benefit from those civilian casualties.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Farah province Monday to meet with families of the victims of Wednesday’s attack. Karzai slammed both the Taliban and NATO in his condemnation of Saturday’s airstrike in Kunar province.
“The president strongly condemns the ISAF airstrike in the Shigal district of Kunar ... and the president condemns the Taliban for using civilian houses as their bunkers,” a statement released Sunday by Karzai’s office said.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report