The Daily Star, November 15, 2011

Afghanistan’s suffering civilians are too often ignored

For three decades, Afghan communities have been caught in the middle of war

By Staffan de Mistura

“The Taliban come to any house they please, by force. Then they fire from that house, and then [the International Security and Assistance Force] and the Afghan National Army fire at the house. But if I tell the Taliban not to enter, the Taliban will kill me. So what is the answer? Either ISAF kills me or the Taliban kills me. The people cannot live like this.”

That experience, recounted by a resident of Afghanistan’s Marja district, is all too frequent in the country. For three decades, Afghan communities have been caught in the middle of war. It is long past time for civilians to stop bearing the brunt of the country’s conflict.

Every day, United Nations human-rights workers in Afghanistan meet community members in districts and villages on fact-finding missions looking into incidents of civilian casualties. A recent mid-year report published by the U.N., which I represent in Afghanistan, found that 1,462 Afghan civilians were killed in the first half of this year, the highest number since the U.N. started documenting Afghan deaths and injuries of civilians in 2007.

Fighting continues in Afghanistan, with the surge in the number of international military forces and Afghan government forces and the spring-summer offensive by the Taliban and other insurgents. While we are all working to assist in finding an Afghan-led political solution to this conflict, the fighting is not going to stop immediately. Therefore, it is essential that those who are engaged in the fighting take very seriously their obligation not to target civilians – indeed, to do everything possible to protect them.

U.S. Special Operatiozns Forces (SOF) killed well over 1,500 civilians in night raids in less than 10 months in 2010 and early 2011, analysis of official statistics on the raids released by the U.S.-NATO command reveals.
NNI, Nov. 5, 2011

The Taliban and other insurgents are responsible for nearly 80 percent of civilian casualties, so they bear the greatest responsibility to change their behavior. Insurgents’ targeted assassinations of civilians, including teachers, government employees, and civilian workers must stop, and the United Nations has called for these groups to end their use of pressure-plate improvised explosive devices, which cause the greatest number of civilian casualties. As the name suggests, these devices are triggered indiscriminately by weight – the foot of a child, a teenager’s bicycle, or an elderly man walking to market. As massive anti-personnel mines, these improvised explosive devices are illegal and morally indefensible.

While errors by international and Afghan government forces are responsible for a far lower rate (about 14 percent) of civilian casualties, the impact on Afghan communities is no less severe. Airstrikes by international forces – which mainly involve attacks from helicopters – caused 79 civilian casualties in the first half of 2011.

Afghans look to their government and international forces to protect them. Therefore, when awful mistakes occur, the negative impact is doubled. International forces should therefore continue to strengthen their control systems, particularly with respect to airstrikes, in order to minimize the risk of civilian casualties.

Reducing and ultimately eliminating civilian casualties in the war in Afghanistan is a moral and legal obligation for all combatants. Unfortunately, while the frequency of combat-related security incidents may have declined since the 2011 pro-government surge, this has not resulted in a reduction in civilian casualties.

Even beyond their international legal and moral obligation to avoid civilian casualties and protect civilians, the Taliban and other insurgent groups should see that ending civilian casualties is in their own interest. Killing and maiming men, women, and children can do nothing to further the insurgents’ cause in the eyes of ordinary Afghans. If the Taliban want to find a legitimate place in Afghan society and political life, putting an end to assassinations and to the use of illegal pressure-plate improvised explosive devices would send a powerful message in this regard.

We are all aware that an end to the Afghan people’s suffering requires an end to the conflict. Talks, not the killing of civilians, are the way to accomplish this. Stopping the killing and maiming of civilians is becoming essential and urgent in this effort.

An end to civilian casualties could also help to create an atmosphere in which all sides begin to develop the mutual confidence that is essential to taking the next step – talking to each other to find a way to end the Afghan conflict. Such an outcome is both necessary and possible. The people of Afghanistan deserve nothing less, and they cannot afford to wait any longer.

Staffan de Mistura is the special representative of the United Nations secretary-general in Afghanistan and the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (

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