Afghan Forces Accused of Helmand Civilian Casualties

Locals say non-combatants are dying at the hands of police and soldiers.
  • Afghan security forces in action in Helmand, 2008. (Photo: Spc. David Gunn/US Army/Wikimedia Commons)

Civilian deaths attributed to Afghan national forces in the southern Helmand province have alarmed the country’s main human rights body.

“We call upon all parties to the conflict to respect humanity and Islam and to avoid killing civilians,” Mohammad Belal Siddiqi, head of the Helmand office of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), told IWPR. “We condemn the killing of innocent people by armed [insurgent] groups, by government forces or by international troops.”

Casualties sustained as a result of military operations by NATO-led forces have long been a cause of tension and grievance in Afghanistan, as has been the sense that perpetrators go unpunished in such cases.

However, the Afghan government forces which have largely taken over responsibility for handling security in recent months also present dangers to local people.

Relatives of those killed in incidents involving the police and army say their complaints fall on deaf ears.

Abdul Wali, a resident of Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial centre, says police in the Nahr-e Saraj district killed his father in-law Akhtar Mohammad along with his wife and their young son on the evening of January 20.

In this case, the attackers belonged to the Afghan Local Police (ALP), an organisation which is distinct from the Afghan National Police (ANP) and which was formed in 2010 as a kind of village defence force.

“In the early morning, my wife called and told me about the incident, and said that the murderers were not the Taleban but the nephews of a local police commander,” Abdul Wali said.

A female eyewitness who did not want to be named said two local policemen had knocked on the family’s door the previous night, asking for a drink of water. When they returned the following evening, they broke into the house and shot dead the three family members. She escaped by hiding inside a large oven.

Crying, she said, “I want the government to arrest those murderers and sentence them to death.”

Abdul Ahad Chupan, spokesman for Helmand’s provincial police chief, confirmed that three people had been killed by ALP members in Nahr-e Saraj. One of the suspects had been taken into custody while the other had fled, he added.

Chupan stressed that most casualties in Helmand resulted from roadside bombs planted by insurgents.

While Afghan security officials admit that civilians are sometimes killed by their forces, they insist that the majority of casualties are caused by Taleban attacks. For their part, the Taleban deny targeting civilians, arguing that they only attack Afghan government and target domestic and international forces.

Sadozai, a resident of Marjah district, told IWPR that his young nephew Abdullah was shot dead on January 21.

He said the boy was playing with other children when an armoured vehicle belonging to the ANP drove by.

“They were driving as if they were crazy or drunk, shooting all around them even though there were no Taleban there or any other threats,” he said. “A bullet hit my nephew Abdullah. When I rushed to get him, I found him dead.”

Sadozai carried the boy’s body to the provincial governor’s office the following day. He says Deputy Governor Massoud Bakhtawar pledged to investigate the killing.

“Although the deputy governor expressed grief over the incident, nobody has even opened the file to investigate yet,” Sadozai said.

Nawzad district resident Rahmatuddin lost his young son on January 18, in an incident involving the Afghan National Army (ANA).

“My son was standing in front of our house when an the ANA vehicle approached, firing shots. As a result, my son was shot,” he said. “I don’t know what sin my innocent child committed. When I took the body to the national army and asked who had killed my son, the army refused to admit it was them. But they did kill him.”

According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), civilian casualties rose by 14 per cent last year, with over 8,600 people killed or injured. UNAMA attributed 74 per cent of these casualties to insurgent groups, but said pro-government forces were responsible for 956 of them, up 59 per cent on the figure for 2012. The overall rise is linked to increased ground operations by Afghan security forces.

Siddiqi says that in Helmand province alone, 85 civilians have been killed in the last eight months, including 20 women and 22 children. Another 118 civilians were injured, 21 of them children.

Wakil Ali Ahmad Khan, a provincial council member in Helmand, said that many victims and family members had approached the assembly seeking redress.

“We have always shared their concerns with the relevant agencies and they have promised to prevent civilian fatalities. But we see this type of incident being repeated,” Ahmad Khan said. “We don’t have the executive authority to act swiftly on complaints.”

He added that since civilians were often caught in crossfire between Afghan security forces and insurgent groups, it could be hard to tell which side was responsible.

Civil society groups in Helmand province are also concerned about the situation.

The chairman of Helmand’s Civil Society Association, Sardar Mohammad Hamdard, sees the recent incidents as a matter of serious concern.

“How can Afghans complain about armed opposition groups or foreign forces if they are being killed by their own Afghan security forces?” he asked.

If Afghan security forces continued acting recklessly, Hamdard warned, it could widen the gulf between people and their government, and the security situation would spiral out of control.

Ordinary people in Helmand expressed similar fears.

Ajabgul, a resident of Nahar-e Saraj, says he has lost many friends and relatives to the violence in Helmand.

“There is no rule of law. The warring sides respect neither the established law of the land nor religious law,” he said. “How can we complain about the Taleban when we’re being killed by our own army? We are sick of the security forces.”

Gol Ahmad Ehsan is an IWPR-trained reporter in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan.