Afghan civilian casualties from Muslim-on-Muslim attacks soared in 2016

Special to

metzlerBy John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Afghanistan’s seemingly endless conflict continues as civilian causalities in the protracted war are nearly double what they were a decade ago.

According to a UN report there were 11,418 conflict related causalities documented, which includes 3,500 killed. Over 900 children died and another 2,600 were injured in the same period in 2016.

The figures, recorded by UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), are the highest since the UN began systematically documenting civilian casualty figures in 2009.

20 were killed in a suicide bombing at Afghanistan's Supreme Court in Kabul on Feb. 7.
20 were killed in a suicide bombing at Afghanistan’s Supreme Court in Kabul on Feb. 7.

“The killing and maiming of thousands of Afghan civilians is deeply harrowing and largely preventable,” said Tadamichi Yamamoto, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan. “All parties to the conflict must take immediate concrete measures to protect the ordinary Afghan men, women and children whose lives are being shattered.”

According to the survey, “Anti-Government forces, mainly the Taliban, were responsible for almost two thirds of the casualties while pro-Government forces were responsible for almost one quarter.”

Significantly, besides the long term threat from Taliban fundamentalist militants, the UN survey relates disturbing new evidence including the “increase in attacks perpetrated by Daesh/ISKP (Islamic State Khorasan Province), particularly targeting Shia Muslims.”

The UN Mission documented 899 civilian casualties (209 deaths and 690 injured), a ten-fold increase from last year. The report states, “The majority of the casualties caused by Daesh/ISKP occurred in three large-scale attacks on the Shia Muslim community.”

In other words Afghanistan is facing both a traditional insurgency as well as a sectarian conflict between Muslim religious groups.

The UN’s Yamamoto added, “Yet another record year of civilian suffering in Afghanistan… Unless all parties to the conflict make serious efforts to review and address the consequences of their operations, the levels of civilian casualties, displacement and other types of human suffering are likely to remain at appallingly high levels.”

NATO’s Resolute Support Mission continues in the war ravished country, with the multinational force levels near 13,000. The United States is the largest troop contributor with 8,400, followed by Italy with 1,000, Germany 980 and the United Kingdom 450 among others. The Resolute Support Mission is primarily focused on training Afghan forces and providing the overall insurance policy of Western boots on the ground. During last year, Afghan military losses spiked too as the military has at long last assumed a larger share of the on the ground fighting.

This war-weary land of 33 million is hardly stabilized despite the best efforts of the U.S. and NATO forces. A weak central government in Kabul combined with an entrenched Islamic Taliban insurgency has sadly guaranteed years of future crisis. The Kabul government controls only about two-thirds of the mountainous country. Combine this with a brisk narcotics trade, entrenched corruption, a militant gaggle of warlords, and Afghanistan appears an impossible maze to solve politically.

Neighboring Pakistan remains part of the problem. Long a supporter of certain Taliban factions, offering them sanctuary and support, the supreme irony remains the deadly political blowback that the very same Taliban has sowed terror and destabilization in parts of Pakistan itself.

Just last week the UN removed a notorious Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, once known as the Butcher of Kabul, from its ISIL/Al-Qaida sanctions blacklist. The controversial move reflected conclusions that the Hez-a-Islami leader would cooperate with President Ashraf Ghani’s central government.

According to Zahid Hussain writing in the Pakistani Dawn newspaper, “A shrewd political operator” Hekmatyar shall strive to reestablish old alliances with other warlords from both the anti-Soviet insurgency and the subsequent civil war. He adds, “Everything is possible in the shifting sands of Afghan politics.”

Russia too, who learned a bloody lesson in the Soviets’ Afghan misadventure a generation ago, now has opened discreet political contacts with the insurgents. Why? To offset the growing threat from Islamic State whose terrorist web is perilously entrenched in parts of the country. India is concerned over the growth of ISIS in Afghanistan and the knock on effect this poses to Pakistan.

A recent bombing outside the Supreme Count in Kabul killing 20 civilians and the murder of 6 Red Cross workers have been traced to Islamic State terrorists, not the Taliban. ISIS stokes sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims inside the country.

Barack Obama’s maladroit and misguided Afghan policies offer the new U.S. administration a stalemate in which to operate. The Trump team must prepare for a sudden surge in fighting while at the same time not investing significantly more American blood and treasure in Afghanistan’s complex geopolitical game.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]