An Afghan air strike last week targeting Taliban fighters killed dozens in the northern province of Kunduz. Among the dead were civilians, including children, gathered for a religious ceremony.
Kunduz is no stranger to these tragedies. In 2015, 42 civilians were killed in a US air strike on a hospital in Kunduz city, the provincial capital. The city, incidentally, has twice fallen briefly to the Taliban in the past few years, subjecting civilians to even more trauma.
It has been nearly 17 years since American forces entered Afghanistan. While recent discourse about the war in Washington and other major world capitals emphasizes strategy — how to strengthen a beleaguered Afghan government, how to weaken an emboldened Taliban, how to reduce unyielding violence and combat terror — less has been said about Afghanistan’s civilians, who often pay a deadly price for all the failed efforts to end a war that has raged for nearly two decades. The conflict in Afghanistan is a forgotten war, and it is sadly fitting that its many civilian victims are forgotten as well.
After most foreign troops left Afghanistan at the end of 2014, leaving outmatched Afghan soldiers on the front lines, the insurgency has gathered steam — and taken a terrible toll on civilians. Overall, according to a Brown University study, more than 31,000 Afghan civilians had been killed and 41,000 wounded by August 2016. In 2017, according to UN tallies, more than 3,400 were killed and more than 7,000 injured.
Last year marked a grim milestone — civilian casualties from suicide attacks and complex attacks (a term used by the UN for mass-casualty assaults not involving suicide bombers) reached record levels. In 2017, female deaths increased by 5 percent. If there’s any good news here, it is that civilian casualties overall fell 9 percent from 2016.
Many of these civilian casualties occur outside cities, in rural areas where fighting is most intense. And yet, urban casualties could increase too. Daesh, for example, has established a presence in Kabul — setting the stage for new campaigns of terror.
One of the forgotten consequences of these civilian travails is a devastating refugee crisis. For decades, most Afghans fleeing their country went to neighboring Iran and Pakistan, which together host the majority of Afghan refugees. However, in recent years, authorities have vowed to send many back to Afghanistan. Thousands have already returned, with the youngest ones entering a country completely foreign to them and not ready to receive them. One major processing center for them is a UN-run facility in Jalalabad — the capital of Nangarhar province — which happens to be the main bastion of Daesh.
The fact that Afghan refugees are increasingly unwelcome in Iran and Pakistan helps to explain why tens of thousands leaving Afghanistan have started seeking refuge in Europe. In 2016, more Afghans than any other nationality except Syrians entered Europe via Greece. In 2017, it was the third most represented nationality. Unfortunately, many of these Afghans have been turned away because European officials say they, unlike Syrian refugees, are not fleeing civil war.
In effect, an intensifying war is prompting many Afghans to flee — but they are no longer welcome where they used to go, and they struggle to find safe spaces elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who had fled long ago are being forced to return at the worst possible time. Afghans can’t catch a break at home or abroad.
As if this weren’t enough, the new US strategy in Afghanistan portends even more hardship for Afghans. The policy’s main objective is to ramp up the fight on the battlefield and put enough pressure on the Taliban to compel it to agree to talks to end the war. More intense battlefield operations may mean more Taliban deaths, but they also greatly heighten the possibility of more civilian casualties (not to mention more casualties among Afghan and American troops).
It is easy to understand why. More intense warfare means more weaponry and violence on the ground — and in the sky. Ominously, in 2017, civilian casualties from American and Afghan airstrikes increased by 7 percent from 2016. Imagine how much that figure could increase in 2018, when there will have been a full year of the new stepped-up war strategy.
Of course, this is only part of the story. “The figures alone cannot capture the appalling human suffering inflicted on ordinary people, especially women and children,” noted Tadamichi Yamamoto, the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan, in February.
Indeed, this human suffering is hard to put into words in the case of Afghanistan, but also of Syria, Yemen, and so many other places buffeted by war. These are conflicts that civilians do not want, but must suffer through nonetheless. Tragically too often, they must pay the ultimate price.
- Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman