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Afghanistan: Civilian casualties from mortars and crossfire at unprecedented levels, says UN

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan have climbed 24% in the first six months of the year, driven in large part by a spike in fighting with large and often inaccurate explosive weapons like mortars. For the first time since 2009 these clashes were the main cause of civilian casualties (deaths and injuries) in the country.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has today issued a new report on the impact of the long-running conflict on the country’s beleaguered civilians. Between January-July 2014 the office recorded almost 5,000 civilian casualties (4,853 deaths and injuries).

Two in five civilian casualties from armed violence in the country (1,901) came during ground clashes with explosive weapons and small arms.

It means that for the first time since recording began in 2009 the main cause of civilian deaths were not car bombs and other improvised explosive devices (IEDs), but ground engagements, as forces clash with mortars and rockets, as well as small arms.

The UN’s report finds that;

  • Half of civilian casualties from ground-engagements were caused by high explosive weapon systems like mortars and rockets (955 casualties; 221 deaths and 734 injuries).
  • Civilian casualties from mortars and rocket fire climbed 160% from the same period in 2013.
  • Most of these civilian casualties (69%) were caused by what the UN calls ‘Anti-Government Elements’ (i.e. Taliban and other armed groups). 23% were caused by pro-government forces.

Afghanistan is seeing an escalation of ground-engagements in civilian populated areas, the UN warns. Civilians are increasingly being caught in the crossfire when these unsuitable weapons come into play among their homes, markets and mosques.

“Both sides were using big weapons – mortars and rocket-propelled grenades,” attests one civilian woman in the report, describing an incident from 4 April 2014 in eastern Nangarhar province. Suddenly, a mortar round exploded into our mosque. I saw two men and a boy killed right in front of me. One of them was my son.”

Explosive weapons affect an area with blast, heat and fragmentation. The likes of mortars and rockets can be fired from a distance, without the user needing to even see their target. If the trend continues further in the coming months as NATO forces prepare to withdraw then civilian casualties will likely far outstrip the toll in 2013.

UNAMA urges both the government and opposition fighters to “cease firing mortars, rockets and grenades into civilian-populated areas.”

The ability of Taliban fighters and other groups to use these powerful and often inaccurate weapons is also of grave concern. Forces fighting on behalf of the Afghan government clearly have no monopoly on the use of explosive force. IEDs, while no longer the biggest cause of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, continue to kill and maim. For the sixth consecutive year, civilian casualties from IEDs increased across the country, up 7% from 2013 levels.

The only good news coming from the UN’s latest report is that there has been a sharp reduction in civilian casualties from air strikes. AOAV’s own data confirms that NATO’s air strikes are killing and injuring fewer people now than in the same period of 2013, with a 61% drop in AOAV’s dataset of civilian casualties from air strikes marking a rare positive trend in explosive violence in Afghanistan. It follows a series of new directives regulating the use of aerial power in populated areas.

This is a rare positive example that shows how restraint in the use of explosive force among civilian populations can achieve measurable reductions in the impact on civilians. It is a positive and progressive example that must now be extended to all means of explosive violence. AOAV endorses UNAMA’s recommendations to pro-government forces to address their tactical directives and rules of engagement in the use of ground-launched explosive weapons like mortars. As the UN’s Director of Human Rights Georgette Gagnon said during the report’s launch, “It is important to highlight every civilian casualty has a life behind it…. We are urging the parties to attempt to make efforts to reverse this downward spiral to cease firing mortars, rockets and grenades into civilian areas, and to stop using IEDs, placing them in places indiscriminately, and to stop using illegal IEDs.”


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