Issue 49 - Article 1

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan: evidence-based advocacy and enhanced protection

February 4, 2011
Norah Niland

Afghanistan is now in its fourth decade of warfare, making it one of the most protracted conflicts in recent history. The nature of warfare, and related war agendas, have evolved over time and continue to do so in line with changing internal and external political objectives and ground realities. However, the absence of adequate measures to protect civilians has characterised the fighting since the outbreak of armed conflict in 1979.

According to an ICRC survey from 2009, almost all Afghans – 96% – have been directly or indirectly affected as a result of the immediate or wider consequences of war; nearly half (45%) of those interviewed had seen a family member killed and a third (35%) has been wounded in fighting.[1] Notwithstanding the likely drawdown of US forces beginning in mid-2011, and growing awareness of the urgent need for a negotiated end to the conflict, there is a high probability that the safety and protection of civilians will remain a concern in humanitarian and other circles in the foreseeable future.

This article explores efforts to mobilise attention in decision-making circles to the costs of war on Afghan civilians. It focuses on the role that systematic monitoring and investigation by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Human Rights (HR) team, coupled with routine public UN reporting, has played in supporting advocacy aimed at enhancing protection for people whose lives are at imminent risk.

Changed policies, postures and attitudes

Nine years after the Taliban regime was routed by the US and its allies, Afghanistan is engulfed in a crisis of governance and escalating warfare. As in other war settings, civilians have paid a high price. The importance of avoiding civilian deaths is, however, one of the few issues on which there is consensus across the diverse stakeholders engaged in Afghanistan; this consensus is central to changing attitudes to the war and how it is depicted. The Taliban now project themselves as fighting a war against an occupation that is hugely detrimental to Afghans; at the same time, they have issued public statements highlighting the need to safeguard the lives of civilians. US military and civilian decision-makers now emphasise the importance of protecting civilians in a conflict that is increasingly seen as a civil war fuelled by grievances associated with the corrupt and predatory practices of the Kabul regime. In recent years, the UN has repeatedly raised concerns about civilian casualties.

Hostility towards the war is widespread, especially in areas most directly affected, and where humanitarian action is constrained by insecurity. The ability of the UN and the larger humanitarian community – with the exception of the ICRC – to engage proactively and productively was also constrained by the dismantling of the UN’s humanitarian coordination structure, and dedicated protection capacity, when UNAMA was established in 2002. The prevailing viewpoint then was that state-building was the critical and central priority.

It was only in 2007 that the issue of protection began to receive senior-level attention within the UN.[2] Efforts to promote protection were however widely seen as not impartial and as closely allied to counter-insurgency programmes. Civilian deaths as a result of actions by international military forces were frequently depicted, within and outside the UN, as ‘unfortunate accidents’; at the same time, anti-government forces were presented as ruthless killers with a penchant for ‘operating out of civilian areas’, even though many international military bases were located in densely populated urban areas, including downtown Kabul. This messaging was echoed by the media, and complicated efforts to convince all of the warring parties to comply with humanitarian and human rights norms.

A major challenge involved reorienting human rights monitoring, analysis and reporting so that perceptions of bias could be rectified. Objective analysis was of critical importance for understanding which circumstances or types of incidents were the most lethal for civilians. It was also important to start a dialogue with, or attempt to influence, the warring parties to change their attitude and behaviour in situations where civilians were at risk.

Systematic monitoring, investigation and reporting

The launch of the cluster system in Afghanistan in 2007 provided an opportunity to rethink and revamp efforts to enhance the protection of war-affected civilians. This included finding ways of maximising synergies between humanitarian and human rights entities. Thus, the work of HR UNAMA on civilian casualties was pursued within the humanitarian framework of the Protection Cluster; this helped build alliances. It also helped insulate advocacy on protection concerns from political agendas and perspectives at odds with principled humanitarian action.

HR monitoring was reoriented so that the focus was on investigating the circumstances in which civilians were killed. This was a departure from the previous preoccupation with determining whether a violation had occurred, and the provision of related legal analysis. In sum, monitoring produced data that helped bring attention to the issue of civilian casualties, and the need to reduce them.

Systematic data collection and up-to-date analysis, facilitated by an Afghanistan-specific, electronic database, proved critical to timely and credible UN public reporting and related advocacy efforts. Annual reports show comparable trends, including a rise of almost 40% in civilian deaths in 2008 over the preceding year; 55% of these deaths were attributed to the armed opposition and 39% to pro-government sources, while the remaining 6% were not attributed and were, mostly, the result of cross-fire incidents. The first six months of 2010 saw an increase of 21% over the same period in 2009, with 1,271 deaths recorded; 72% of these deaths were attributed to the armed opposition and 18% to pro-government forces.[3]

Advocacy was strategic and wide-ranging. It was greatly facilitated by regular public reports issued jointly by UNAMA and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which garnered top-level media coverage locally and internationally, including in troop-contributing countries.

Initially, different sets of warring parties challenged the conclusions of the HR team on particular incidents and trends. In 2008, for example, data analysis showed that there was an increase in the incidence of ISAF ‘force protection’ or convoy incidents when new troops were rotated into an area. Data also showed that airstrikes were the biggest killer in the context of pro-government military tactics. Over time, however, ISAF came to acknowledge the objectivity of the reporting even if, on occasion, it disputed perspectives on particular incidents.

A breakthrough occurred in August 2008 when an airstrike in Shindand, southern Herat, resulted in the death of over 90 civilians, including a large number of women and children who were killed as they slept. Video footage, including from a mobile phone, clearly showed infants among the dead, obliging ISAF to acknowledge that its version of events was erroneous. The Shindand incident acted as a catalyst for ISAF to develop a Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell that, in contrast to previous tracking mechanisms, was not dependent solely on after-action reports from troops involved in particular incidents. ISAF also shifted its stance on public information, refraining from issuing immediate statements on particular incidents. This allowed for a more thorough review of incidents and conclusions, based on a cross-section of insights.

Dialogue as advocacy

The focus on bringing down the casualty rate facilitated structured interaction with pro-government forces and also changed the tone and nature of the dialogue on measures to prevent avoidable harm to civilians. In September 2008, ISAF issued a Tactical Directive that limited the use of air strikes in particular circumstances in order to minimise risk to civilians. Subsequent Tactical Directives and the revised 2009 counter-insurgency doctrine, enunciated by General Stanley McChrystal, then overall commander for most international forces in Afghanistan, reinforced the importance of prioritising the protection of civilians. At the same time, however, Special Forces operations increased significantly in 2010. Their search and seizure operations tend to be conducted under the cover of darkness and their chain of command is unclear as some are involved in counter-terrorism rather than counter-insurgency activities and do not report to the ISAF Commander. This lack of transparency greatly inhibits public scrutiny and, by extension, efforts to influence Special Forces operations.

The armed opposition has been responsible for a growing proportion, and the largest number, of civilian deaths since the insurgency took hold in 2005. Nonetheless, it has been able, to a significant extent, to avoid censure among Afghans for the civilian deaths resulting from its military activities. The Taliban are however not immune to public perceptions and criticism. They have routinely issued fatwas, or edicts, to their fighters enjoining them to limit the number of civilian casualties they cause. They have also taken steps to warn villagers not to use particular routes. In a meeting I had with elders from Marjah in March 2010, shortly after pro-government forces launched an operation to retake the area, there was no disagreement with the proposal that the widespread use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by the Taliban presented a deadly threat to civilians, and that better precautionary measures were needed.[4]

Following the launch of UNAMA’s mid-2010 report on civilian casualties, the Taliban proposed the formation of a joint commission to investigate civilian deaths. The Taliban had advanced similar ideas previously, pointing to their concern about their association with the growing number of war deaths, the highest proportion of which are the result of suicide attacks and IEDs.


A multitude of factors shape the scale and nature of warfare in Afghanistan. However, as the issue of civilian deaths has acquired strategic significance, belligerents, mindful of public perceptions, have taken efforts to protect civilian lives. Thus, while civilian deaths continue to increase, they have done so at a slower pace than the increase in conflict-related incidents.[5] This is an important and welcome trend. It indicates that increased awareness of, and public debate on, the toll on civilians in the most recent phase of the war has been instrumental in the use of military tactics that have, in some instances, avoided civilian deaths. This highlights the importance of protection initiatives in explaining and exposing circumstances and trends that pose harm to civilians. Afghanistan shows that the more advocacy work is able to draw on credible evidence, the more likely it is that it will prove protective. Afghanistan also highlights the importance of maximising synergies between humanitarian and human rights entities concerned with protection, and doing so within a humanitarian framework and in a manner that does not impact on humanitarian space or access.


Norah Niland is currently on sabbatical from the UN having completed her most recent assignment in 2010 in Afghanistan, where she was director of human rights in UNAMA.


[1] ICRC/IPSOS, Our World, Views from the Field, Afghanistan Opinion Survey, Geneva, 2009.

[2] The UN organised a workshop in August 2007 with the Afghan authorities, senior ISAF and UN personnel, humanitarian and human rights staff and others in order to identify key protection challenges, and potential solutions and strategies.

[3] UNAMA, Afghanistan, Mid Year Report 2010, Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, Kabul, 10 August 2010.

[4] During the first half of 2010, IEDs accounted for 29% of all civilian deaths. In Marjah, IEDs were used liberally to impede the movement of ISAF troops.

[5] In mid-2010, the Afghan NGO Security Office (ANSO) noted that June ‘marked a record for Taliban attacks – up 51% on the previous year to 1,319 operations’. Jon Boone, ‘US Military Build-up in Kandahar Will Bolster Taliban, Warns Security Monitor’, The Guardian, 18 July 2010


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