Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Ongoing Civilian Casualty Crisis in Afghanistan

The tragic deaths of staff and patients at the Medicins Sans Frontiers hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan prompted me to wonder how many civilians are continuing to suffer in Afghanistan as a result of the ongoing armed conflict.  This is particularly pertinent given that the conflict celebrates its 14th anniversary on October 7, 2014, the day that Operation Enduring Freedom began.

According to the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University, at the beginning of 2015, about 92,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan war since it began in 2001.  Of those killed, more than 26,000 are civilians.

Every year, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights release a report "Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict" for Afghanistan.  Let's look at some interesting statistics from the report for 2014.  Please note that this report has data going back to 2009 when UNAMA began to systematically record civilian casualties.

Here is a graphic showing the number of civilian deaths and injuries in Afghanistan for the years from 2009 to 2014:

By a wide margin, 2014 was extremely costly to the civilian population of Afghanistan with a total of 10,548 casualties, up 22 percent from 2013.  Between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2015, UNAMA has documented 47,745 civilian casualties, consisting of 17,774 killed and 29,971 injured.

The rise in casualties during 2014 resulted from increased ground engagements across the nation with parties to the conflict using increasing numbers of high explosive weapons including mortars, rockets and grenades in civilian-populated areas.  Here are the groups responsible for the civilian casualties in 2014 and the percentage of the civilian casualties that they are responsible for:

Antigovernment Elements - 72 percent 
Pro-Government Forces - 14 percent 
Ground Engagements with No Attribution - 14 percent 
Explosive Remnants of War - 3 percent
Cross-border Shelling from Pakistan - 1 percent

Antigovernment Elements include all individuals and armed groups that are in conflict with the Government of Afghanistan and international military forces.  They include the Taliban as well as other militia and armed groups that are pursuing political, ideological or economic objectives.  The number of civilian casualties caused by Antigovernment Elements has risen each year since 2009 with their preferred techniques being the indiscriminate use of IEDs and suicide bombings.  

Here is a graphic showing the breakdown of tactics used to kill and injure Afghani civilians during 2014:

Ground engagements were the leading cause of civilian casualties during 2014.   Here is a graphic showing how ground engagements are taking an increasing toll on Afghani civilians:

As international military forces withdrew, UNAMA noted more frequent and larger scale ground operations by both Afghani national security forces and Antigovernment Elements during 2014.  A total of 3,605 civilian casualties resulted from the indiscriminate use of mortars and other explosive devices along with small arms fire as civilians were caught in crossfire situations between insurgents and Afghani security forces.  Of the 3,605 civilian casualties related to ground engagements, 43 percent were attributed to Antigovernment Elements and 26 percent to Pro-Government Forces with 29 percent being unattributable. 

Here is a graphic showing how the number of civilian casualties from IEDs has increased since 2009:

Remote-controlled IEDs cause the most harm to civilians, rising by 136 percent from 2013 to 2014, resulting in 1,119 civilian casualties.  The use of pressure plate IEDs increased by 39 percent from 2013 to 2014, resulting in 775 civilian casualties.  As well, the number of civilian victims of suicide and other types of complex attacks increased by 28 percent from 2013 to 2014, resulting in 1,582 civilian casualties with the largest single suicide attack taking place on November 23, 2014 when a suicide bomber detonated among a crowd  of approximately 400 people at a volleyball game, killing 53 and injuring 85.  

As an update, according to the United Nations mid-year review for 2015, the Afghani conflict has intensified in the first half of 2015 with 4,921 reported civilian casualties consisting of 1,592 civilian deaths and 3,329 injured.  Here are two bar graphs showing monthly conflict incidents and resulting monthly civilian casualties going back to the beginning of 2013:

Here is a map showing the regions of the nation that are currently experiencing conflict and the number of conflict-induced Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs):

The U.N. notes that conflict-induced displacement has shown a considerable upsurge in the first half of 2015 due to the conflict that broke out in Kunduz province, the scene of the recent MSF disaster.  As well, conflict has spread both in terms of frequency and geographic spread, particularly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south, Faryab and Kunduz provinces in the north and Nangarhar and Kunar provinces in the east.  As well, provinces in the Central Region remain highly unstable.

Fourteen years later, Afghanistan can only be classified as a failed nation-building exercise.  An exercise that, according to the National Priorities Project, has cost United States taxpayers over $715.3 billion and continues to add $4 million to the total cost, every hour of the day.  Unfortunately for Afghanistan's beleaguered civilian population, unless an attack is particularly noteworthy, the West pays very little attention to their daily plight.  

So much for Enduring Freedom.


  1. Many Americans have recently tried to block Afghanistan out of their thoughts, going forward little exist to be excited or optimist about. As with Vietnam it seems that we may have to settle with claims of "peace with honor" as we rush for the exit.
    This reminds me of the experience the French had in Algeria. After years of effort the French did not achieve victory, they only proved how difficult and expensive some of these missions can become. More on this subject in the article below.

  2. "According to the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University, at the beginning of 2015, about 92,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan war since it began in 2001. " This is wrong Afghanistan has been at war since 1979. Never has there been peace there since that time. But prior to kicking out the British in 1919 they did have about 60 years of peace. Well I just learned about Operation Storm-333. Most of Afghanistan's problem can be traced back to this. Also @Bruce Wilds there is no doubt within a few years of the US leaving Afghanistan the Taliban will take over most of the country. I mean we are still there with about 10k troops and they are already taking over large areas.

  3. I believe the UNHRC gets a lot of its report data from the 'coalition forces' and government of Afghanistan sources. Asking the Taliban just doesn't happen and the two 'sources' have a vital interest in supporting their war.

    If the Taliban were killing innocents in Afghanistan, their war would have been over long, long ago. They have far too much public assistance and support to be killing 7 out of 10 of the dead.