Overall civilian casualties in Afghanistan decreased by 6 percent in the first nine months of 2017 compared to the same time period the previous year, with the number of civilians injured falling by 9 percent but the number of those killed increasing by 1 percent, according to a new report from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). The overall decrease in civilian casualties was mainly attributed to fewer being killed during ground engagements between pro- and anti-government forces.
UNAMA’s Quarterly Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: 1 January to 30 September 2017 noted 5,915 civilians injured in 2017 to date, and 2,616 killed, compared to the same period last year. While this is a positive trend, the conflict in Afghanistan remains very dangerous for civilians. Civilian harm in Afghanistan has been steadily increasing since 2013, and the UN mission documented a record 11,418 casualties in 2016, the most since UNAMA began tracking casualties in 2009.
UNAMA reported that civilian casualties caused by pro-government forces during ground engagements decreased by 37 percent, while civilian casualties attributable to anti-government forces’ ground engagements increased by 7 percent. The Afghan Taliban and the Islamic State-Khorosan’s use of improvised explosive devices, suicide attacks and targeted killings of Shias and government supporters has contributed to the increase in harm to civilians. UNAMA reported that anti-government forces are responsible for 64 percent of casualties and pro-government forces are responsible for 20 percent. UNAMA is unable to attribute the remaining casualties to any particular party.
Despite the overall decrease in civilian casualties, the report does raise several points of concern. Women and children continue to suffer: overall female casualties increased by 13 percent, and child deaths increased by 5 percent.
Aerial attacks by Afghan and international forces continue to take a toll, especially in populated areas. There were 52 percent more civilian casualties in 2017 than in 2016. Although air strikes had declined after NATO’s ISAF mission ended in 2014, the Afghan Air Force has taken a more aggressive stance, and the US has loosened restrictions on when the it can order air strikes. The large increase in civilian casualties shows that air strikes need robust monitoring to ensure civilian harm is minimized.
The Government of Afghanistan and its security forces say they are committed to mitigating civilian harm from its operations. In September 2017, President Ghani approved a National Policy on Civilian Casualty Prevention and Mitigation that tasks ministries to take steps to reduce and prevent civilian casualties. Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) has worked with the government to develop protocols to assess and track civilian harm and provide technical assistance to the policy. CIVIC advocates the government create an implementation plan for the policy and ensure that the more robust US engagement in Afghanistan is in line with the goals of the policies to reduce and prevent civilian harm. This is what Afghan civilians expect of their government.
Also, the US must be more transparent in its actions in Afghanistan. It should ensure all precautionary measures—such as those in place prior to 2014 when ISAF was in the lead—are in place to minimize civilian harm.