Afghanistan’s Suffering Civilians

“The Taliban come to any house they please, by force. Then they fire from that house, and then ISAF and the Afghan National Army fire at the house. But if I tell the Taliban not to enter, the Taliban will kill me. So what is the answer? Either ISAF kills me or the Taliban kills me. The people cannot live like this.”

That experience, recounted by a resident of Afghanistan’s Marja district, is all too frequent in the country. For three decades, Afghan communities have been caught in the middle of war. It is long past time for civilians to stop bearing the brunt of it.

Every day, United Nations human-rights workers in Afghanistan meet community members in districts and villages on fact-finding missions into incidents of civilian casualties. Our recent mid-year report found that 1,462 Afghan civilians were killed in the first half of this year, the highest number since the UN started documenting deaths and injuries of civilians in 2007.

Fighting continues in Afghanistan, with the surge of the international military forces and Afghan government forces and the spring-summer offensive by the Taliban and other insurgents. While we are all working to assist in finding an Afghan-led political solution to this conflict, the fighting is not going to stop immediately. Therefore, it is essential that those fighting take very seriously their obligation not to target civilians – indeed, to do everything possible to protect them.

The Taliban and other insurgents are responsible for nearly 80% of civilian casualties, so they bear the greatest responsibility to change their behavior. Insurgents’ targeted assassinations of civilians, including teachers, government employees, and civilian workers must stop, and the UN has called for these groups to end their use of pressure-plate improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which cause the greatest number of civilian casualties. As the name suggests, they are triggered indiscriminately by weight – the foot of a child, a teenager’s bicycle, or an elderly man walking to market. As massive anti-personnel mines, these IEDs are illegal and morally indefensible.

While errors by international and government forces are responsible for a far lower rate (about 14%) of civilian casualties, the impact on Afghan communities is no less severe. Airstrikes by international forces – mainly attacks from helicopters – caused 79 civilian casualties in the first half of 2011.

Afghans look to their government and the international forces to protect them, so, when awful mistakes occur, the negative impact is doubled. International forces should therefore continue to strengthen their control systems, particularly with respect to air strikes, in order to minimize the risk of civilian casualties.

Reducing and ultimately eliminating civilian casualties in this war is a moral and legal obligation for all combatants. Unfortunately, while the frequency of combat-related security incidents may have declined since the 2011 pro-government surge, this has not resulted in a reduction in civilian casualties.

Even beyond their international legal and moral obligation to avoid civilian casualties and protect civilians, the Taliban and other insurgent groups should see that ending civilian casualties is in their own interest. Killing and maiming men, women, and children can do nothing to further their cause in the eyes of ordinary Afghans. If the Taliban want to find a legitimate place in Afghan society and political life, stopping the assassinations and use of illegal pressure-plate IEDs would send a powerful message.

We are all aware that an end to the Afghan people’s suffering requires an end to the conflict. Talks, not the killing of civilians, are the way to accomplish this. Stopping the killing and maiming of civilians is becoming essential and urgent in this effort.

An end to civilian casualties could also help to create an atmosphere in which all sides begin to develop the mutual confidence essential to taking the next step – talking to each other to find a way to end the conflict – an outcome that is both necessary and possible. The Afghan people deserve nothing less, and they cannot afford to wait any longer.

Staffan de Mistura, the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General in Afghanistan and the head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA.

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