UN reports stark rise in number of Afghan civilian casualties in 2015

Report says 11,002 civilians were killed or injured, a 4% jump from the previous year, and attributes 14% to Afghan security forces

More Afghan civilians were killed or injured in 2015 than any other year on record, the UN has said in a report.

11,002 casualties is the highest toll since the UN began documenting in 2009, and constitutes a 4% jump from the previous year, following a worrying pattern: as the international military presence in Afghanistan diminishes, more civilians are caught in the crossfire or directly targeted.

The Afghan government’s struggle to stem the insurgency has forced Barack Obama to backtrack on plans to withdraw all American troops before his presidency ends. As reported earlier by the Guardian, the US is planning to boost Afghan forces in Helmand with several hundred Americans in late February.

However, it is still the Afghan army and police who do most of the fighting against the Taliban. They also injure and kill a growing number of civilians.

Out of the 3,545 civilians killed and 7,457 injured last year, the UN’s report on Sunday attributed 62% to anti-government groups such as the Taliban, down from 72% in 2014. In comparison, 14% were attributed to Afghan security forces, up from 12%. An increasing proportion of casualties, 17%, could not be attributed to any side.

Rahmatullah, 35, fled Kandahar’s Panjwayi district with his family during heavy fighting between the Taliban and the police. “Bullets were falling like rain. Everyone was trying to find somewhere safe. That’s why we fled our house,” he told the Guardian from Charahi Qambar, a camp for internally displaced people in Kabul where he moved his family. Two of his sons were killed. A third disappeared during the escape. “It’s been a year, and I don’t know if he is alive or dead,” Rahmatullah said.

As fighting moves closer to residential areas, women and children become more vulnerable. Every fourth victim in 2015 was a child. One in 10 was a woman.

“Unprecedented numbers of children were needlessly killed and injured last year,” said Danielle Bell, the UN’s human rights director in Afghanistan. “Other children suffered the loss of parents, and increasingly their mothers, sisters, and female role models.”

Many fell victim to indiscriminate militant methods, such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which remain the deadliest insurgent tactic, followed by suicide and complex attacks.

Another troubling trend is the large number of targeted attacks, especially against judicial institutions and personnel. In one of the worst such attacks, the Taliban killed 14 people and wounded 47 when storming a prosecutor’s office in Mazar-i Sharif in April.

The UN also reported a stark increase in abductions and killings of members of the Shia Hazara minority. 146 were kidnapped in 2015. In an incident that sparked outrage, Islamic State militants beheaded seven Hazaras in Zabul province in November.

Foreign military personnel were responsible for 2% of civilian casualties. Almost half of the 170 casualties caused by international aerial operations occurred in a single incident – the US airstrike on a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz on 3 October, which killed at least 42 and wounded 43.

A US military inquiry concluded the attack happened “in error”, because the plane mistook the hospital for a government building occupied by Taliban. However, the US military has been criticised for changing its explanation four times, and MSF previously accused the US of committing a war crime.

In its report, the UN called on international military forces to conduct an “independent, impartial, transparent and effective investigation of the attack against the MSF hospital and make the findings public”.

The UN also urged the Afghan government to investigate all accusations against its security forces. In one rare arrest, three Afghan national army soldiers were detained after shelling a village mosque in Sayedabad district of Wardak province, killing nine civilians including four children.

“There were no Taliban in the area. There was no fighting going on,” Abdul Aziz, an uncle to one of the killed boys, told the Guardian. “We want the killers put on trial.” The incident is still under investigation.

“The people of Afghanistan continue to suffer brutal and unprincipled attacks that are forbidden under international law,” said the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. “This is happening with almost complete impunity.”


Sune Engel Rasmussen in Kabul

The GuardianTramp

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