US, Afghan forces accuse each other in abuses

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Feb. 25 ordered all US Special Forces out of two key provinces within two weeks, accusing Afghan units under their command of being responsible for the torture, abuse and disappearance of civilians. Wardak and Logar provinces, lying just outside Kabul, are considered strategic gateways to the capital. Karzai's charges reference two apparently recent incidents: The disappearance of nine civilians following a special forces operation, and the death of a student who was taken away during a night raid and whose body was found two days later under a bridge with his throat cut and signs of torture. The US has denied its forces were involved.

The move comes a week after Karzai harshly criticized coalition forces for reckless air-strikes, ordering a ban on all aerial attacks in residential areas. The ban came after several civilians were apparently killed in an airstrike reportedly requested by Afghan forces. (LAT, Feb. 25; ABC News, Feb. 24)

Claims have mounted for years not only of indiscriminate civilian casualties in US/NATO operations in Afghanistan, but of intentional atrocities by US forces.

Meanwhile, an investigation by BBC's Panorama in Sangin, Helmand province, finds that Afghan national police being trained by US Marines there engage in routine abuses, including kidnapping civilians for ransom (under the thin guise of detaining suspected insurgent collaborators) and sexual exploitation of children. In the past five weeks, the report found, four boys suspected of having been used as "sex slaves" have been shot—one in the face—while attempting to escape from police commanders believed to have abducted them from their families. Three have died. The report also found widespread use of cannabis, opium and heroin by police troops. Most of the complaints came from the Marines who are assigned to train the police troops. (BBC News, Daily Mail, Feb. 25)

Despite an aggressive eradication program, farmers in provinces previously deemed opium-free have repeatedly returned to growing poppies. The total area under poppy cultivation increased by 18% in 2012, reaching 154,000 hectares (380,000 acres), compared with 131,000 hectares in 2011, according to a recent report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The report did find that the overall production of opium decreased by 36%—from nearly 6,000 ton in 2011 to around 3,700 in 2012. But researchers maintain this was due to a lower yield caused by plant disease and adverse weather conditions in several parts of the country. (BBC News, Feb. 25)

New UN report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan's armed conflict decreased for the first time in six years, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said Feb. 19 in releasing its 2012 Annual Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. UNAMA documented a 12% drop in civilian deaths and a marginal increase in civilian injuries compared with 2011. UNAMA recorded 7,559 civilian casualties—2,754 civilian deaths and 4,805 civilian injuries—in 2012. Over the past six years, 14,728 Afghan civilians have lost their lives in the conflict.

The report attributed the reduction in civilian casualties to a decline in suicide attacks by "Anti-Government Elements," reduced numbers of aerial operations, and other measures taken by "Pro-Government Forces" to minimize harm to civilians.

At the same time, however, UNAMA observed increasing threats to civilians in 2012 associated with the presence and re-emergence of armed groups, particularly in the north and northeast regions of Afghanistan. Civilians also faced an increase in threats, intimidation and interference with their rights to education, health, justice and freedom of movement from Anti-Government Elements.

"The decrease in civilian casualties UNAMA documented in 2012 is very much welcome," said Ján Kubiš, United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan. "Yet, the human cost of the conflict remains unacceptable. Indiscriminate and unlawful use of improvised explosive devices by Anti-Government Elements remains the single biggest killer of civilians. Steep increases in the deliberate targeting of civilians perceived to be supporting the Government demonstrates another grave violation of international humanitarian law. Particularly appalling is the use of suicide attacks including those carried out by brainwashed children to murder civilians which is also a clear breach of the norms of Islam."

While the overall incidence of civilian casualties decreased in 2012, Anti-Government Elements increasingly targeted civilians throughout the country and carried out attacks without regard for human life. In total, 81% of civilian casualties in 2012 were attributed to Anti-Government Elements.In contrast, 8% of civilian casualties resulted from the operations of Pro-Government Forces, and 11% could not be attributed to any party to the conflict.

The report found that women and girls continued to suffer enormously from the effects of armed conflict. UNAMA documented 864 female casualties (301 deaths and 563 injuries) in 2012. This constitutes a 20% over 2011.

Overall, civilian casualties caused by Anti-Government Elements increased by 9% over 2011. UNAMA's report notes that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used by Anti-Government Elements were the greatest threat to civilians in 2012, causing 2,531 civilian casualties with 868 civilians killed and 1,663 injured in 782 separate incidents.

Illegal "pressure-plate" IEDs—victim-activated devices detonated by any person  stepping on them or any vehicle driving over them—were planted in public places used by civilians such as bazaars, markets and roads with devastating consequences. (UNAMA press release, Feb. 19)

Compare last year's report.

Afghanistan: killing civilians to make a point

 A suicide bomber blew himself up at a Defense Ministry gate in Kabul on March 9, killing nine civilians during a visit to Afghanistan by US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (Reuters, March 9) That same day in a Khost province village, a police officer and eight bystanders—all children—were killed by a suicide bomber at a checkpoint.  (CNN, March 9)

Karzai joins conspiracy theory

In a televised speech March 11, President Karzai  cast doubt on the Taliban's claim of responsibility for the weekend's bombings, which were timed for Chuck Hagel's visit to Afghanistan. “In reality, the bombs that went off yesterday under the name of the Taliban were a service to the foreigners,” Karzai said. “We have been down this road before too many times.” 

The charge was categorically rejected by Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top US commander in Afghanistan. (WP, March 11)

We have noted the persistent rumors in Afghanistan of US-Taliban collaboration.