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Civilian life crippled by Afghan war

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 10 June 2010

As western leaders pledge a breakthrough in its fight against the Taliban 'in the next six months', Channel 4 News asks, what effect a decade of war is having on the people of Afghanistan.

Afghan child protest killing of civilians in airstrike (credit - Reuters)

It's been a bloody week by any standards in Afghanistan.

23 international soldiers have been killed in a series of incidents. An attack on a wedding party left up to 40 dead, with more than 70 injured; and there are reports that the Taliban has hanged a seven year old boy accuse of spying.

While some military casualties are to be expected, the rising number of civilian casualties are cause for serious concern.

Changing tactics
Military experts are quick to point out that the war being fought in Afghanistan is not a 'symmetric war' of two equal sides fighting on a front line. Over the decade that the two sides have been locked conflict, tactics and weaponry have evolved.

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When forces were deployed to Helmand in 2006 they were deemed too small to effectively reach out to civilians and gain their confidence. The Taliban, able then to regroup, were quick to realise that they could not match the force of western armies.

Since then Talban have become more covert in their tactics. As Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute explains- "the war is a constant cat and mouse game with each side battling to keep up with each other’s technology and outwit each other."

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and snipers have become key weapons in the Taliban's arsenal and their constant advancement requires ISAF forces to invest more money, manpower and technology to keep a step ahead.

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Chalmers told Channel 4 News: "The Taliban are not trying to defeat us in open combat but gradually wear us down and make ordinary people scared to support us. And they have all the time in the world."

This is an insurgency, the enemy is among the people, and with no defined battlefield the war is being fought in villages and in towns. For Afghan civilians it is, quite literally, on their doorstep; and the situation is only getting worse.

Rising civilian death toll
There are no comprehensive statistics for the number of civilian deaths Afghanistan, but last year a UN report showed a leap from 2,118 deaths in 2008 to 2412 deaths in 2009 - making 2009 deadliest year since operations began.

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan: UN Statistics
2008 –  2,118 killed                        
2009 –  2412 killed                          
civilians killed by pro gov forces – 596
civilians Killed in insurgent attacks 1,630

According to the UK based charity Oxfam as many as 5,000 lives have been lost over the past 12 months. Ashley Jackson of the charity's Kabul office told Channel 4 News all aspects of life are being affected: "There is a rising tide of violence in Afghanistan and no-one knows what anyone else is doing. The Taliban intimidates and terrorises the population. There is no protection for civilians and a total disregard for human life.

"Education and development is being badly affected. Local people say the situation is the worst it's been for 40 years. Parents are scared to send their children to school."

Life in Afghanistan
The conflict is having a 'crippling' affect on safety and living conditions. Afghanistan is the second poorest country in the world; one in four children won't live to see their fifth birthday.

Nivi Narang, Campaigns Director of UK charity War Child says it is children who are hit hardest by these difficult circumstances: "The war and the subsequent increase in societal violence have meant that children are often vulnerable to being beaten by police or even community members. Additionally, many are imprisoned alongside adults and given adult sentences for so-called 'honour' crimes such as running away from home or for actions they were forced into.

"The conflict has also deeply affected access to education, something that can be both life-saving and provide a way out of poverty. Only 17 per cent of the population aged 25 and over had attended any type of formal education, with the figure for women being just 6 per cent."

'Targeted assassinations'
US General Stanley McChrystal made it a key tenet of his counter-insurgency strategy to reduce civilian casualties; air attacks and night raids have been reduced, as have the accompanying casualties. But the statistics clearly show that civilians are continuing to pay the price.

IEDs are, by their nature, indiscriminate and the public frequently fall victim - a look at the amputee figures are sure enough sign of that. But the fault for civilian death lays with both sides.

Both relief and military experts tell Channel 4 News there's growing evidence of 'targeted assassinations' by the Taliban. As foreign soldiers hunt insurgents - and are hunted in return, the Taliban is also setting its sights on fellow Afghans: those seemed to be collaborators and informants. The men signing up to the burgeoning police force and Afghan army. And as the Taliban's power grows, factions appear and local chiefs hunt their rivals.

Stephen Gray, Author of 'Operation Snakebite' told Channel 4 News: "Civilians are everywhere the first casualties in this war; The question we have to ask ourselves is when the Taliban commit such atrocities, if it was them behind this, like the wedding attack or the hanging of a seven year old, why doesn’t the country rise up and reject them?

"The West’s problem – as it was in Iraq – seems to be that people are as likely to blame us for bringing the war to their neighborhood as they are likely to blame the perpetrators."

What next?
The war is being fought to secure the future of Afghanistan for Afghans. It is ironic then, that while civilians are taking the toll, it is they too, who may hold the key to bringing this war to a close.

Military experts say the 'battle for hearts and minds' must not be underestimated; they're waiting for what they call a 'non permissive society' to take shape. The tide of opinion about ISAF forces needs to change for the positive, and the fear of the Taliban to dissipate so its operations are no longer acceptable and communities feel confident to prevent Taliban operatives working in their communities. They need a change such as was seen in Iraq during the 2005-6 fighting in Fallujah and Anbar province and the Sunni Awakening.

This week’s death toll alone would indicate the Taliban is showing no sign of weakening. After nearly a decade of fighting, Nato forces' commitment to a breakthrough in the next 6 months is admirable, but aid agencies say for ordinary people, its crucial.

And there's no starker reminder than the deaths of 40 people at the celebration of a marriage.

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