KABUL, Afghanistan – A war in Afghanistan is getting deadlier for its civilians with the toll from crossfire and ground battles rising sharply, the United Nations has said in a bi-annual report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.
The number killed or injured in the first six months of the year rose by a quarter from 2013 levels to nearly 5,000 people, the bloodiest total since the UN began keeping records in 2009. Women and children are particularly badly affected.
It was also the first time that ground fighting has proved more dangerous for civilians than the often indiscriminate homemade bombs that have become a key Taliban weapon, a worrying sign that the conflict may only get more bloody as Nato forces head home.
The withdrawal of well-equipped and heavily armed foreign troops from most districts has made it easier for insurgent forces to infiltrate towns and villages, so battles more often take place among houses, shops or government buildings, the report says. Both sides often use weapons like mortars and rockets that allow them to keep their distance from enemy fighters, but are very risky for civilians in the area, the report says.
"In 2014, the fight is increasingly taking place in communities, public places and near the homes of ordinary Afghans, with death and injury to women and children in a continued disturbing upward spiral," said Georgette Gagnon, the UN's director of human rights in Afghanistan. "More efforts are needed to protect civilians from the harms of conflict and to ensure accountability for those deliberately and indiscriminately killing them."
More than 1,000 of those killed or injured were children, about a third more than the previous year, and the number of women caught up in the violence rose by a quarter to 440. Most of the casualties were caused by the Taliban, even though the insurgent group officially ordered their fighters to avoid harming Afghans who are not fighting.
The UN called on the group to stop attacks from or in civilian areas including homes, restaurants and government buildings, and end the use of indiscriminate roadside bombs, the second biggest cause of death and injuries. The government and its supporters have managed to nearly halve the civilian deaths they caused compared with 2009, to 158 people, mostly by being more careful when using air strikes, the report found.
The UN attributed three-quarters of the deaths and injuries to insurgent fighters and said that just one in 10 were caused by Afghan forces or their foreign backers. Around 12 per cent of victims were hit by unidentified attackers during battles between insurgents and government troops. "The long-term trend shows that anti-government elements are responsible for an increasingly large share of civilian casualties in the conflict," said UN envoy Jan Kubiڑ, using the UN term for insurgent fighters.
"While all parties to the conflict - including Afghan national security forces – must do more to uphold their obligations under international law to avoid harm to civilians, the onus is clearly on the Taliban and other anti-government elements to reverse this trend." The UN also said that there had been a rise in the small but worrying number of attacks and abuses of civilians by pro-government armed groups, with 30 people killed and injured.
There is a lack of accountability for human rights abuses by these groups, the report says, with local authorities turning a blind eye and failing to investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators.