UN: Afghan war claiming more women, children
August 5, 2015
KABUL, Afghanistan — Civilian deaths and injuries in the war between NATO-backed government forces and insurgent groups rose slightly to a new record in the first six months of the year, while the share of women and children among those casualties sharply increased, the United Nations said Wednesday.
In a report reviewing the first six months of 2015, the U.N. said its investigators confirmed 1,592 deaths and 3,329 injuries, for a total of 4,921 casualties among noncombatants in Afghanistan. Of that number, the share of casualties among women increased by 23 percent and that among children rose by 13 percent.
The total number of civilian casualties was up by less than 1 percent over the previous record high of 4,894 recorded during the first six months of last year.
“The rise in the numbers of women and children killed and maimed from conflict-related violence is particularly disturbing,” Danielle Bell, director of human rights for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, said in a statement. “This year, UNAMA recorded the highest number of children and women casualties compared to the same period in previous years.”
The NATO-led coalition and U.S. military forces declared an end to their combat mission at the end of 2014. Fighting has remained at all-time high levels since then as Taliban insurgents have sought to challenge government forces now solely responsible for the country’s security.
Since 2009, when the U.N. started tracking such casualties, more than 52,000 Afghan civilians have been killed or injured in the conflict, a number investigators acknowledge is likely on the low side given their stringent verification standards.
“Afghan civilians have suffered far too long from this destructive conflict,” Nicholas Haysom, head of the U.N. mission, said in a statement. “The devastating consequences of this violence against civilians as documented in this report should serve to strengthen the broad conviction that peace is urgently needed.”
Reflecting their much-reduced military mission, international forces were linked to less than 1 percent, or 55 civilian casualties, almost all caused by drones or other aircraft strikes.
Anti-government forces, including the Taliban, continued to cause the vast majority of civilian casualties, with U.N. officials attributing 70 percent of the deaths and injuries to insurgent groups.
NATO-backed pro-government forces, which include the regular army and police forces, as well as allied militia units, caused 15 percent of the total, but that represents a 60 percent increase over the previous year, according to the U.N.
“No one cares about civilians,” said Mohammad Wali, a farmer in the volatile Sangin district of Helmand province. Wali’s 13-year-old son was killed two months ago when a mortar fired by the Afghan army struck his house.
“The fighting is increasing and innocent people are getting killed every day,” he told Stars and Stripes by phone.
It’s weapons like that mortar — commonly used by both sides — that make ground engagements between the various fighting forces the leading cause of civilian casualties, according to the U.N., especially as fighting between the Taliban and government units increasingly pushes into populated areas.
The Defense Ministry could not immediately be reached for comment, but Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid called the report “one-sided.”
“We fully reject this report,” he said in a telephone call, arguing that the report’s goal was only to smear the Taliban. The group regularly releases statements urging its fighters to avoid civilian casualties, but human rights officials say there is a disconnect between what the insurgent group says and what it does.
Yahya Khan, a resident of Jalalabad, lost his brother in an insurgent suicide attack in April this year and said that civilians are regularly killed and wounded during suicide attacks or by improvised bombs.
“My brother had a small shop near the Kabul Bank that was attacked,” Khan said. “He was the breadwinner for his family, but he was gone in a blink of the eye.”
The continuing violence has led American and NATO leaders to reassess their plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. On Tuesday, the coalition’s top commander, Gen. John Campbell, said during a discussion at the Brookings Institution in Washington that he is constantly assessing the situation to determine if international troops will be needed after the end of 2016. Previous plans had called for the U.S. to draw down to 5,500 troops by the end of 2015, but President Barack Obama decided in March to keep nearly 10,000 here through at least the end of this year.
This latest U.N. report for the first time documented civilian casualties claimed by the Islamic State, the extremist group with roots in Iraq and Syria that has begun to make inroads in Afghanistan as a rival to the Taliban. Seven deaths and three injuries were attributed to the Islamic State in 10 incidents.
On both sides of the conflict, the U.N. says, there is a lack of accountability for forces that either intentionally or negligently hurt or kill noncombatants.
One example the U.N. gave was a mortar attack by the NATO-trained Afghan National Army forces in Helmand that killed 29 women and children at a wedding party at the end of 2014. The Afghan government claimed the deaths were the result of a car bomb set off by someone else.
And the Taliban have officially claimed responsibility for at least 239 attacks that either directly targeted civilians or caused significant civilian casualties, the U.N. said.
“UNAMA notes that neither Afghan national security forces nor any Anti-Government Element (insurgent) groups, including the Taliban, can demonstrate a single instance of accountability for instances where civilians were directly targeted, harmed by an indiscriminate attack or where forces had failed to take sufficient precautions to prevent harm to civilians by the use of indirect fire,” investigators wrote in the report.
As negotiators try to launch talks between the government and the Taliban, fighting continues to rage around the country, making peace vitally important to protect the lives of Afghans increasingly caught in the crossfire, the U.N. concluded. “The cold statistics of civilian casualties do not adequately capture the horror of violence in Afghanistan, the torn bodies of children, mothers and daughters, sons and fathers,” Haysom said in the report. “These are the real consequences of the conflict in Afghanistan.”
Zubair Babakarkhail and Stars and Stripes reporter Tara Copp contributed to this report.