Airstrikes killed and injured more civilians in Afghanistan last year than at any time since the United Nations (UN) began systematically recording casualties there in 2009.
The “sharp increase” in civilian casualties from air attacks came during a year that saw the highest ever number of non-combatants killed and injured since the Afghan conflict began, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama) said in its annual report published today.
Air attacks by Afghan and international forces caused a total of 590 civilian casualties in 2016 (250 deaths and 340 people injured), almost double that of 2015. The conflict as a whole killed and injured more than 11,000 civilians in total last year, of which 3,512 were children – the highest number of child casualties recorded by Unama in a single year and a 24% increase from 2015.
The number of strikes also significantly increased, up 50% from 2015 to 2016 as Afghan and international air forces responded to a deteriorating situation on the ground and the US terms of engagement expanded. US pilots, attacking with drones, gunships and fighter jets, were responsible for 40% of the civilian airstrike casualties, while 43% were caused by the US-trained and equipped Afghan Air Force (AAF).
A resurgent Taliban is continuing to stretch Afghan and international forces. Though almost at breaking point at times, the US military has pointed out the insurgents failed in all eight attempts to take a provincial capital last year.
This is an improvement on 2015 when the Taliban briefly took control of Kunduz city – the first provincial centre to fall to the insurgents since the US invasion in 2001.
More civilians killed per strike
Across the country in 2016 US pilots killed or injured one civilian in every three strikes, on average – marginally less than in 2015 but still much more often than any other year since 2009 when the US military changed targeting rules to reduce civilian harm.
The civilian casualty rate plummeted as a result of the new rules, which were brought in because commanders believed the civilian deaths were driving the Afghan people into the arms of the Taliban.
The rule change specifically prohibited strikes on buildings in all but the most extreme circumstances, because such attacks were most likely to hurt civilians.
The US will not comment on whether the rules have changed. However the Bureau has recorded at least 73 strikes on buildings in Afghanistan – out of 1,346 in total – since it began monitoring reports of US air attacks in Afghanistan following the end of combat operations in December 2014.
One series of strikes in November this year hit several buildings, killing 32 civilians. Unama says questions remain about whether the attacks were acceptable under international law.
Resurgent Taliban versus hamstrung Afghan forces
The US and its allies from Nato and other international partners are faced with a dilemma. The Taliban is resurgent and the Afghan forces, hamstrung by poor logistics, leadership and corruption, are struggling.
They have needed more and more international support but NATO’s Resolute Support Mission (RSM), led by the US, has seen its numbers dwindle since the end of combat operations in December 2014. This means the Americans are trying to fight an insurgency largely from the air.
US air attacks have increased by around 50% since 2015 – largely thanks to a change in rules in June that meant the Americans could specifically target the Taliban. Before then only al Qaeda and Islamic State could be specifically targeted.
A surge in the number of American strikes from July through to October appeared to be the result of the US trying to cut down the Taliban and keep the Afghans holding the line.
Air support is crucial in the fight against the Taliban. Strikes stop the insurgents from massing in large numbers because such formations present too easy a target. Strikes are also essential to save soldiers pinned down in insurgent attacks.
Strikes in civilian-populated areas
With much of Afghanistan’s fighting last year taking place in civilian-populated areas, air attacks also carry a considerable risk of civilian harm.
Unama urged “an immediate halt to the use of airstrikes in civilian-populated areas and calls for greater restraint in the use of airstrikes where civilians are likely to be present.”
More than half the civilian casualties from US and Afghan air attacks came in three provinces: Kunduz in the north and Helmand in the south, where the Taliban has been pressing hard, and in south-eastern Nangarhar province where the Taliban and Islamic State’s Afghan franchise are fighting each other and the Afghan security forces.
The US has focused considerable firepower on Nangarhar with air strikes and operations by special forces. This has translated into a near-400% increase in civilian casualties from operations by US and other international forces. A total of 37 people were killed and 52 injured in 13 aerial operations in the province last year, compared to 11 people deaths and seven injured in ten operations in 2015.
The annual Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict report from Unama looks in-depth at the devastation wreaked by all sides in the Afghan conflict. Since 2009, almost 25,000 civilians have been killed or injured in what Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, today called a “senseless, never-ending conflict.”
“It is about time the various parties to the conflict ceased the relentless commission of war crimes,” he said.
Worst year for civilian casualties on record
Last year was the worst since 2009 for civilian casualties, with 3,498 killed and 7,920 injured.
Children accounted for 3,512 of those casualties, a record number which the UN puts down to a 66% increase in deaths and injuries caused by “explosive remnants of war” – unexploded bombs and shells left littering the battlefield after the shooting stops.
Pro-government and international military forces were responsible for 24% of all civilian casualties, up 40% on 2015 despite “efforts… to mitigate civilian harm,” Unama reported.
The Taliban and other anti-government forces caused 61% of all civilian casualties “through attacks that disregarded civilian life, including the indiscriminate detonation of [improvised explosive devices] in civilian-populated areas.”
The remaining 15% were non-attributable.
“This appalling conflict destroys lives and tears communities apart in every corner of Afghanistan”
One particular US and Afghan ground raid last year demonstrates how strikes near civilians can prove catastrophic.
The aerial onslaught in northern Kunduz province has been singled out for specific attention in the Unama report.
US and Afghan special forces were conducting a night raid on November 2, going after Taliban leaders believed to be in the village of Boz-e-Qandahari in Kunduz province.
They came heavy fire from the Talban insurgents in the compound – three Afghan and two US soldiers were killed, 15 more were injured.
The troops called in air support and a sustained aerial bombardment that lasted most of the night hit the targeted housing compound as well as the next door compound.
Unama documented 32 people killed (including 20 children) and 36 injured (including 14 children) in the airstrikes. Nearly a third of the casualties belonged to the family of the Taliban commander that Unama’s sources said was the main target of the raid.
The Afghan government has paid money to the relatives of the dead and the injured. The US released a summary of its investigation into the strike in mid-January.
Unama says the US did not release enough information to determine whether the strike was legal under international law. The UN also said it was not clear if the investigation was independent.
The UN called for “an independent, clear and public accounting as to how the international military forces reached the conclusion that the operation involved no wrongdoing.”
Unama also called on the US to release full details of the investigation, something the RS press office in Kabul told the Bureau in January it did not “have a date for its release” because the declassification process can take weeks or months.
“This appalling conflict destroys lives and tears communities apart in every corner of Afghanistan,” said Tadamichi Yamamoto, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan. “Real protection of civilians requires commitment and demonstrated concrete actions to protect civilians from harm and for parties to the conflict to ensure accountability for indiscriminate and deliberate acts of civilian harm.”
The rising number of civilians killed and injured reflects the continued strength of the Taliban, its willingness to carry out attacks with scant regard or civilian life, and the Afghan security forces struggles to contain the insurgency.
The US handed responsibility for fighting the Taliban over to Kabul’s army and police in December 2014. Since then the Taliban has been pushing the Afghans hard on the ground, inflicting considerable losses on security forces. The Afghans lost 6,785 soldiers and police dead with 11,777 more wounded between January and November last year.
The Afghan government is losing ground too. Kabul’s authority extends over 57% of the country’s 407 districts, as of November 2016. This is down nearly 15% from November 2015.
The US military judges the Afghan security forces to be most effective when taking the fight to the Taliban, moving away from static checkpoints and attacking the insurgents directly. However there has been a marked reluctance among local officials and military and police officers to do so.
The Afghan security forces also shrank by more than 30,000 in January this year when the US announced it was stopping pay to “ghost soldiers” – fictitious positions created so that officers could collect salaries for soldiers that did not exist in reality.
Corruption has severely impacted the Afghan security forces in their fight against the Taliban, alongside logistical issues. Supply lines have been stretched thin, with troops and police complaining of lacking ammunition and food.
Photo of Afghan soldiers carrying an injured woman by Aref Karimi/Getty
The Bureau newsletter
Subscribe to the Bureau newsletter, and hear when our next story breaks.