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 their attacks on vulnerable 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 military forces, the Taliban has made substantial military gains, currently controlling or contesting over 40 percent of the country. The Taliban has also continued to perpetrate indiscriminate attacks on civilians. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), civilians living in Taliban-controlled territory suffer widespread human rights abuses, including recruitment of child soldiers and extrajudicial killings.
UNAMA's midyear report documented the deaths of 1,692 civilians from 1 January to 30 June 2018. Attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government forces remain the leading cause of casualties, but other parties to the conflict also continue to use heavy weapons in civilian-populated areas. Between 10-15 August the Taliban launched a major military offensive on the city of Ghazni, resulting at least 95 civilian deaths.
On 19 August the government proposed a four-day ceasefire marking the Eid al-Adha celebration. The Taliban rejected the ceasefire and rockets were fired on Kabul the following day.
The UN Secretary-General's annual report on children and armed conflict documented 3,179 children killed or maimed in Afghanistan during 2017, marking a decrease of 10 percent from 2016, although the situation in Afghanistan is still responsible for the highest overall number of child deaths and injuries due to armed conflict. During 2016 Afghanistan recorded the highest number of verified child casualties since the UN started globally documenting such casualties in 2009.
During November 2017 the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) requested authorization to proceed with an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Afghanistan since May 2003. According to the ICC, the Taliban has potentially committed crimes against humanity and war crimes, particularly against civilians perceived to be supporting the government and foreign military forces. Afghan security forces and members of the United States military may have also committed war crimes, including the torture of detainees. On 22 February Afghanistan's new penal code came into force, incorporating the Rome Statute of the ICC regarding war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Following the military defeat of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq, some supporters – designated ISIL Khorasan (ISIL-K) – have established a presence in Afghanistan. ISIL-K attacks have been increasingly directed at Afghanistan's Shia minority, including a 3 August attack on a Shia mosque in Gardez city that resulted in the deaths of at least 39 people and a 15 August bombing of an education center in a largely Shia district of Kabul, resulting in the deaths of 48 people.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 5.5 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.
The Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001, is an armed Sunni extremist movement. As the Taliban has regained territory, the number of civilians at risk of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity has increased. During their 16-year war, government forces and the Taliban have both shown disregard for International Humanitarian Law (IHL).
In addition to fighting to expand territorial control, the Taliban has escalated attacks on civilians in urban areas in an effort to undermine the government's ability to govern and provide basic security. Although government forces undertook successful measures to decrease civilian casualties during 2017, deliberate bomb attacks by the Taliban and ISIL-K on densely populated areas and civilian infrastructure present an escalating threat.
Unless sustained action is taken to address corruption, marginalization and political tensions within the Afghan government, conflict and insecurity will continue to increase. Parliamentary elections scheduled for October and presidential elections during April 2019 provide a potential focus for attacks in an environment of increased insecurity. Continued violence and terrorist attacks may prevent people from voting in several regions of the country.
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.
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.
Following the conclusion of the voter registration process in Afghanistan, on 23 July the UNSC adopted a Presidential Statement emphasizing the need for international electoral observation missions and welcoming the intention of international partners to provide ongoing support to the government.
The international community should continue to support the Afghan government to combat the Taliban, ISIL-K and other armed extremist groups within the country. 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 September 2018
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.