In its 2017 annual report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) outlines some positive movement regarding civilian casualties, while highlighting the devastating effects the conflict continues to have on the local population.
UNAMA reports fewer civilian deaths and injuries in 2017 compared to 2016, Afghanistan’s deadliest year since the mission began systematically collecting figures. This reduction was primarily attributed to pro-government forces scaling back their use of indirect weapons, though ground fighting continues to kill thousands on an annual basis. While positive steps forward have reduced the number of civilians killed and injured in the long-running conflict, the report underscores the continued destruction wrought by use of explosive weapons in populated areas, regardless of context or the party using them. It calls for the complete cessations of the “indirect… use of mortars, rockets, grenades and other weapons, and aerial attacks in civilian-populated areas”, alongside strengthened targeting protocols during aerial engagements and greater support for clearing the explosive remnants of war.
In 2017, UNAMA documents 10,453 civilian casualties (3,438 deaths and 7,015 injured), “an overall decrease of nine per cent compared to 2016”. The majority, as in prior years, are attributed to insurgents, who deploy weapons “deliberately targeting civilians”. But pro-government forces were also responsible for high numbers of civilian casualties during combat operations: 2,108 were documented (745 deaths and 1,363 injured), the second highest figure in a calendar year since data collection began, with more than half of the civilian casualties occurring during ground fighting.
Overall, civilian casualties from ground engagements decreased for the first time since 2012 (despite levels of fighting being only slightly lower than 2016) with Pro-Government forces in particular showing a “29 per cent decrease in civilian casualties from the use of indirect weapons such as mortars, rockets and grenades…compared to 2016”. In 2017 Afghanistan adopted a National Policy for Civilian Casualty Mitigation and Prevention – and instituted related training for security forces. The report praises “significant measures” taken by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) towards mitigating civilian casualties and operating within their obligation of international humanitarian law. These steps include the “relocation of security bases from civilian areas” and “increased constraints on the use of… indirect fire weapons during ground fighting in civilian-populated areas.” These were acknowledged by UNAMA as significant factors contributing to the reduction of civilian casualties, and the report encourages the Government of Afghanistan to continue to expand the “robust practical measures to further reduce civilian casualties, particularly from the use of indirect weapons by the Afghan national security forces”.
While civilian casualties caused by ground operations decreased, UNAMA reported that aerial operations, which “increased significantly”, caused a “record high” 631 casualties – an average of some 4.5 civilian casualties per engagement. Particularly striking is the impact of these operations on women and children: according to UNAMA, “[a]erial operations disproportionately and increasingly affected women and children in 2017”, who collectively comprised “62 percent of civilian casualties” from the use of planes and drones, and “caused substantially more deaths and injuries among children in 2017 with casualties from airstrikes increasing by 33 per cent compared to 2016”. Most of these casualties occurred from “…strikes in areas populated by civilians”. Furthermore, unexploded ordnance (UXO) continues to be a primary and disturbing contributor to the death of children, frequently a lingering result of “mortars, rockets, and grenades [utilized] in civilian populated areas.” Non-fatal harm from these leftover munitions leads to “serious injuries and psychological trauma, limiting [ones] prospects for a normal life.” UNAMA reiterated its finding of a “strong correlation between the use of weapons such as mortars, rockets and grenades during ground fighting and civilian casualties from unexploded ordnance”.
The report emphasises that further steps are necessary, “to protect civilians, prevent civilian casualties, and uphold… obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law”, and sets out a number of recommendations to various parties to the conflict. The report strongly calls for increased checks and balances on the part of coalition forces, regarding “pre-engagement targeting protocols” and expanded efforts in “post-operation reviews and investigations… following allegations of civilian casualties”. The Government should work to fully realise and implement its National Policy on Civilian Casualty Prevention and Mitigation, “including concrete objectives and additional measures to prevent civilian casualties”. Outside of direct combat operations, coalition partners should continue to aid Afghani officials in locating, marking, and disposing of the explosive remnants of war.