America Is Leaving Afghanistan and Civilians Are Paying the Price

With American troops preparing to leave Afghanistan and the Taliban stepping up its attacks across the country, Afghan civilians are increasingly getting caught in the crossfire. According to newly released United Nations data, the number of civilians who were injured or killed in Afghanistan rose by 24 percent over the first half of 2014, compared to the same period in last year. In total, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 1,564 civilian deaths and 3,289 injuries during the six-month span.

The U.N. data indicates that ground combat has overtaken improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as the leading cause of civilian deaths. Ground combat -- which can include the use of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms -- was responsible for 39 percent of civilian deaths and injuries in 2014, accounting for 474 civilian deaths and 1,427 injuries. The number of casualties caused by ground combat rose 89 percent from the previous year.

And while IEDs are no longer the leading killer of Afghan civilians, civilian deaths and injuries from the homemade bombs are also on the rise. IEDs were responsible for 1,463 casualties in the first half of 2014, a 7 percent increase from 2013 and the highest number of casualties from IEDs in any six-month time span since 2009. Suicide attacks by anti-government forces, the third-leading cause of civilian casualties, caused 156 deaths and 427 injuries.

This increased combat has hit women and children particularly hard. The first six months of 2014 saw civilian casualties among children and women spike by 34 and 24 percent, respectively. The U.N. report found that ground combat accounted for 112 child deaths and 408 injuries, while close fighting killed 64 women and injured 192 in Afghanistan.

Anti-government attacks caused 988 civilian casualties, 553 of which were attributable to the Taliban. Afghan security forces accidently caught 274 civilians in the crossfire, while 38 casualties resulted from cross-border shelling; the U.N. report was unable to directly attribute the culprit of 599 civilian casualties sustained from ground combat. Looking more closely at Taliban-led attacks, the report found that of the 147 attacks for which the Taliban publicly claimed responsibility and which resulted in civilian casualties, 69 directly targeted civilians, including tribal elders, civilian government officials, and justice system workers. The remaining 76 were directed at military targets, which indiscriminately caused civilian deaths and injuries.

The number of civilian casualties caused by the Taliban and other anti-government forces doubled since 2009, when UNAMA began collecting such data.

The findings come amid a shift in Afghanistan's security landscape. President Obama's announcement that American troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by 2016 has placed greater responsibility on the Afghan National Army to maintain security in the country. The increase in civilian casualties caused by ground combat may be one indication that the Taliban is more willing to engage in direct firefights with the Afghan army. While the Taliban would often avoid getting in firefights with well-trained American troops -- by, for example, relying more heavily on IEDs -- the insurgents may favor their odds in a firefight against the less competent Afghan army.

Moreover, fraud allegations from the country's recent runoff election threaten to contribute further to instability in Afghanistan. Preliminary results released Monday handed Ashraf Ghani a commanding lead over his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, whose supporters have threatened to form a parallel government that wouldn't recognize Ghani as the country's duly elected president.

The Taliban, meanwhile, continue to challenge Afghan and international security forces. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber killed 16 people in Parwan province, north of Kabul. The victims included four Czech soldiers and Afghan civilians, among them children.



U.N. Extends Marriage Benefits to Gay Employees

Gay rights has long been an issue of deep hypocrisy at the United Nations. Although the organization promotes gay rights around the world, some gay employees' spouses weren't eligible for benefits until Monday, when the U.N. took a major step and extended benefits to all same-sex partnerships.

Only staffers from countries where gay marriage was legal were previously eligible, thereby limiting benefits to spouses from just 18 countries. Now, gay employees who marry or enter a civil union with partners from anywhere in the world can put them on the employee's health insurance, for example. The world body will also cover spouses' travel expenses when they join their partners on "home leave." Staffers posted abroad periodically may return to their home countries on the U.N.'s dime.  

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a longtime proponent of LGBT rights, was aware of the disparity between the U.N.'s rhetoric and internal policy. In an article he penned in May, Moon noted that "equality begins at home and I am all too aware that LGBT colleagues at the U.N., and their families, continue to face challenges." The new policy will place the U.N. in conflict with some of the countries it tries to help most. According to Amnesty International, 38 of 54 sub-Saharan African countries have outlawed homosexuality. They also host a large contingent of the U.N.'s 43,000 employees worldwide.

"The U.N. will recognize status (marriage, common law, or otherwise) if that status is obtained in any place where that status is legal," Farhan Haq, deputy spokesperson for the secretary-general, told Foreign Policy. "The U.N. would continue to recognize that status regardless of where the relevant staff member travels."

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan was widely condemned when he signed a law in January criminalizing same-sex relationships, gay groups, and public displays of affection by homosexuals. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni one-upped Jonathan in February, making homosexual acts punishable by life in prison. Kenya, host to Africa's U.N. headquarters, also has strict anti-gay laws with convictions for gay sex punishable by up to 14 years in prison, according to Human Rights Watch.

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