Populations at Risk
Populations in Afghanistan are at ongoing risk of mass atrocity crimes as the Taliban intensifies its armed conflict with the government. Other armed extremist groups are also increasing attacks on civilians.
Since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001 by a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) coalition of military forces, it has conducted an insurgency against the internationally recognized Afghan government. Following the 2014 withdrawal of most foreign forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban has made substantial military gains, currently controlling or influencing more than half of the country. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), civilians living in Taliban-controlled areas suffer widespread human rights abuses, including recruitment of child soldiers and extrajudicial killings.
UNAMA documented the deaths of 2,798 civilians from 1 January to 30 September 2018. Attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government forces using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are the leading cause of civilian casualties, with over 1,065 civilian deaths due to IEDs during 2018. Such attacks often target individuals from minority ethnic and religious groups. Civilians have also been killed during anti-Taliban operations, including a 27 November airstrike conducted by the United States military in Helmand Province that killed up to 23 civilians.
UNAMA recorded that 2,136 children were killed or maimed between January and September 2018. According to the UN Secretary-General's 2018 report on children and armed conflict, the situation in Afghanistan was also responsible for the highest overall number of child deaths and injuries due to armed conflict during 2017. During 2016 Afghanistan recorded the highest number of verified child casualties in any conflict since the UN started globally documenting such casualties in 2009.
The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K) has also established a significant presence in Afghanistan. ISIL-K attacks have often been directed at the Shia minority, including a 20 November suicide-bombing in Kabul targeting a gathering of religious leaders that killed at least 50 people.
Violence escalated ahead of the 20 October parliamentary elections, with UNAMA documenting an "organized campaign of numerous attacks by anti-government elements, mainly Taliban, directed at civilian objects and in civilian-populated areas ... including attacks against schools used as polling centres." In advance of the elections at least ten candidates were killed in attacks claimed by ISIL-K and the Taliban. During the election period UNAMA recorded the highest level of civilian harm compared to the four previous elections held in Afghanistan, with 56 civilians killed. UNAMA also documented widespread threats and intimidation, depriving civilians of their right to freely participate in the election. On 6 December the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission announced that all votes cast in Kabul would be rendered invalid due to fraud and mismanagement.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 6.3 million people in Afghanistan are in need of humanitarian assistance and 2.5 million Afghans are refugees - the second largest refugee population in the world.
As the Taliban regains territory the number of civilians at risk of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity continues to increase. Afghan security forces and members of the United States military may have also committed war crimes, including the torture of detainees. During their 17-year war, government forces and the Taliban have both shown disregard for International Humanitarian Law (IHL).
In addition to fighting to expand their territorial control, the Taliban has escalated attacks on civilians in urban areas in an effort to undermine the government's ability to function. The rise of ISIL-K across Afghanistan has also put civilians – in particular members of the Shia religious minority – at elevated risk of mass atrocities. Although government forces implemented successful measures to decrease civilian casualties during 2017, the use of IEDs by the Taliban and ISIL-K in populated areas continues to endanger civilians.
Unless sustained action is taken to address corruption, marginalization and political tensions within the Afghan government, conflict and insecurity will continue to increase. The upcoming presidential election scheduled for April 2019 provides a potential trigger for further violence.
The Afghan government needs ongoing international support to uphold its Responsibility to Protect.
At the July 2016 NATO Summit member states pledged to sustain their assistance to Afghan security forces until 2020. The United States currently has approximately 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, although in December 2018 President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw approximately half of them.
Since 2011 the UN Security Council (UNSC) has imposed an arms embargo and sanctions on individuals or entities who support the Taliban and its affiliates. UNAMA was established under UNSC Resolution 1401 of 2002 and its mandate includes monitoring human rights violations and the protection of civilians. UNAMA's current mandate expires on 17 March 2019.
During November 2017 the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) requested authorization to proceed with an investigation into alleged crimes committed in Afghanistan since May 2003. According to the ICC, the Taliban has potentially committed crimes against humanity and war crimes. Afghan security forces and members of the United States military may have also committed war crimes, including the torture of detainees. During February 2018 Afghanistan's new penal code came into force, incorporating the Rome Statute of the ICC.
On 9 November Russia hosted peace talks with representatives from the Afghan government, the Taliban, the United States and eleven other governments. On 17 December the government of Pakistan convened talks in the United Arab Emirates with representatives of the Afghan government, the Taliban and the United States.
On 27-28 November the UN hosted a conference that led to the adoption of the "Geneva Mutual Accountability Framework," which is designed to monitor reforms that support peace and development, reduce poverty, and improve the welfare of the people of Afghanistan.
The international community should continue to support the Afghan government as it combats the Taliban, ISIL-K and other armed extremist groups. Increased efforts should be undertaken to ensure the safety and security of vulnerable minorities. Countering violent extremism while promoting good governance and the rule of law remains essential.
The Afghan security forces and all international military forces operating within Afghanistan must prioritize the protection of civilians and strictly adhere to IHL and International Human Rights Law.
The government and its international partners should fully cooperate with the ICC's investigation of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan.
Last Updated: 15 January 2019
The five most recent issues of R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert are available in the side-bar. To see previous assessments of this country, please see R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert on our Publications page. Afghanistan has been featured in the R2P Monitor since the September 2017 issue.