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Shot in the Back: Insurgent Attacks and Afghan Disillusionment with Population Protection

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Three times as many civilians were killed in suicide attacks and IED explosions by insurgents as were killed in air strikes by international forces in 2009, according to a report released today by the human rights unit of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). And yet at a protest against civilian casualties in eastern Jalalabad province last week the crowd chanted "Death to America!" not "Death to the Taliban!" Why the disparity?

Insurgent attacks were responsible for 1,630 of the 2,400 civilian deaths in 2009, or 67% of the total killed, the report stated, making insurgents the number one source of instability in communities. In addition to direct threats and attacks, insurgents prevented women from going out of their homes, children from going to school, government workers or tribal elders from going about their work. They thwarted commerce and development, prevented aid from being delivered to impoverished communities, and harassed members of the population into giving them money, support, or sometimes sons as fighters.

One reason why anti-Taliban protests are rare is sheer terror. Who would dare to protest against the Taliban? In districts across Afghanistan, Taliban let it be known that they will kill those who speak out or work for the government, international forces, or the international community, and they have demonstrated that they will carry out their threats. According to UNAMA's report, insurgents assassinated 225 Afghans in 2009 -- teachers, Parliamentarians, tribal elders, religious leaders, and everyday civilians.

But a deeper explanation for Afghan anger at the Afghan government and the international community is that despite all the funding, the troop increases, and the promises of greater population protection, no one protected those 225 people from being attacked. In communities across Afghanistan there is no one standing between civilians and the insurgent groups threatening them. "Despite promises in 2009, security is getting worse by the day. Politicians and commanders have made many promises about protecting the population, but so far we have not seen the results," said the spokesperson for the Afghan NGOs Against Civilian Casualties Dr. Mudassir Rasuli.

UNAMA recorded nearly 6000 civilian deaths and injuries in 2009. There were an average of 960 incidents per month, a 29.6% increase from the already high 2008 violence. Imagine 960 suicide attacks, roadside mines, air strikes, assassinations, kidnappings, night raids, roadside shootings, and other atrocities every month in your country -- a quarter of them at the hands of those who are supposed to be bringing peace. No wonder Afghan communities are fed up.

I asked a woman from the volatile southeastern region why pro-government forces, particularly international forces, were blamed more than insurgents. "International military got rid of the Taliban in three days so why can't they stop the insurgents from taking over a single village or district?" The truth of the matter is: we simply don't know. We haven't figured out how to protect them - not the international military, not the Afghan government, not even human rights activists like myself.