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Afghanistan's Civilian Victims


Monday, May. 21, 2007

The loud boom I heard just after I woke up on my first morning in Kabul, early last month, was the sound of a suicide bombing. By the time I made it upstairs for breakfast, the local news was reporting four dead.

Once unknown in Afghanistan, suicide bombings by insurgent forces are now frequent. At least 136 suicide attacks occurred in Afghanistan during 2006, a six-fold increase over the previous year. Even though a clear majority of these attacks were against military targets, they killed many times more civilians than combatants.

The increase in suicide attacks is part of a more general worsening of violence against civilians in Afghanistan. Notably, 2006 was the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since 2001. According to statistics compiled by Human Rights Watch, at least 669 civilians were killed in some 350 separate armed attacks by insurgent government forces in 2006, and at least 230 civilians were killed during coalition or NATO operations.

By adopting the most brutal tactics of Iraqi militant groups--including hostage-taking and beheadings, as well as suicide bombings--the Taliban, Hezb-e Islami and associated groups are trying to turn Afghanistan into another Iraq. While the conflict has yet not deteriorated to that extent, the warning signs are unmistakable.

Intentional, Indiscriminate and Disproportionate Killings

Many insurgent attacks in Afghanistan have intentionally targeted civilians. The Taliban regularly target civilians who work for the government as teachers or aid workers, or those who work for international organizations. They have also delivered messages warning Afghans not to work for government offices or non-governmental humanitarian organizations.

Other insurgent attacks, while not intentionally targeting civilians, result in unnecessary and avoidable deaths. In many instances, the Taliban and other insurgent groups have attacked military targets and civilians without distinction, or in the knowledge that their attacks would cause disproportionate civilian harm.

Insurgent attacks often take place in crowded civilian areas, either residential or commercial. In addition, suicide bombers frequently detonate their explosives prematurely or inaccurately, without regard to minimizing the loss of civilian life. Bombers also tend to use very powerful explosives, killing and maiming bystanders, wrecking nearby vehicles, and damaging civilian buildings.

The Collateral Consequences of Attacks

Besides the direct civilian costs of the violence, there also are serious collateral consequences. First, during many attacks, particularly suicide bombings, insurgents have disguised themselves as civilians, violating the international legal prohibition against perfidy. (Perfidious attacks are ones in which a combatant feigns protected status, such as being a civilian, in order to carry out an attack.)

Such attacks have contributed to a general blurring of the distinction between civilians and combatants in Afghanistan, which in turn has raised the risk for civilians of being mistakenly targeted during military operations carried out by government and coalition forces. NATO forces, in the last several months, appear to have repeatedly mistakenly opened fire on civilian vehicles that were approaching military convoys, erroneously believing, based in part on past perfidious attacks, that the vehicles were suicide attackers.

A second collateral cost of the upsurge in violence has been its devastating impact on the provision of basic social services. Since many attacks have targeted humanitarian workers and government officials, vital government and development programs have been suspended in unstable areas. The end result is that already low levels of development and humanitarian assistance have dropped even lower, making life for Afghan civilians even more difficult.

Afghan Hearts and Minds

The goal of much of the violence is to discredit the Afghan government, to prove to the populace that the government is powerless to bring security, much less to deliver prosperity and development. Yet by carrying out attacks with such high civilian costs, the Taliban and related groups risk losing their base of support in the Afghan population.

Survivors, victims, and witnesses to the insurgent attacks, whom Human Rights Watch interviewed, expressed anger and disgust at the Taliban's actions. "What they did is unforgivable," declared a man who was severely injured in a 2005 attack.

An Afghan named Habibullah, who lost a brother in a May 2006 bombing in Kabul that appeared to have been meant for a passing NATO convoy, condemned the Taliban in similarly strong terms.

"The bastards," he fumed, in an interview with Human Rights Watch, "they blew themselves up. They did not kill the foreigners …. They killed the innocent; they killed the poor …. They just make us hate them."

Joanne Mariner is a lawyer with Human Rights Watch in New York. This piece is based on a longer Human Rights Watch report released in April 2007, "The Human Cost: The Consequences of Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan."

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