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 10,993 civilian casualties during 2018, including 3,804 deaths, representing an 11 percent increase in civilian deaths compared to 2017. Attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government forces using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are the leading cause of civilian casualties, with over 1,361 civilian deaths due to IEDs during 2018. On 6 February the UN Mine Action Service reported 1,415 civilians were killed or injured by mines and explosive remnants during 2018. Civilians have also been killed by government and international military forces during anti-Taliban operations.
According to UNAMA, among those killed in 2018 were 927 children, the highest number recorded during the conflict in a single year. According to previous UN reports, during 2016 the situation in Afghanistan was responsible for 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 carried out at least 38 terrorist attacks in Afghanistan during 2018. These attacks have often been directed at the Shia minority.
Since December the United States government, led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, has participated in formal talks with the Taliban in an effort to end the 17-year war. The Afghan government has not been officially represented at any of the negotiations.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 6.3 million people in Afghanistan are currently 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. 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, and may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.
While progress made by the United States government and Taliban towards a potential peace agreement is welcome, the exclusion of the Afghan government from discussions, as well as representatives of women, ethnic and religious minorities, and civil society, risks the further marginalization of vulnerable populations within Afghan society.
Unless sustained action is taken to address corruption and mismanagement within the Afghan government, conflict and insecurity will continue to increase. Ahead of the October 2018 parliamentary elections UNAMA documented 56 civilian deaths due to 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." The upcoming presidential election, scheduled for July 2019, provides a potential focus for further violence by armed extremist groups.
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.
UNAMA was established under UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1401 of 2002 and its mandate includes monitoring human rights violations and the protection of civilians. Since 2011 the UNSC has imposed an arms embargo and sanctions on individuals or entities who support the Taliban and its affiliates.
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 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.
On 29 January United States government and Taliban officials announced their agreement on a framework that would lead to a withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and potentially end the conflict. High level talks took place in Doha, Qatar, from 25 February to 12 March. The Russian government also hosted talks during February between the Taliban and a delegation of Afghan officials led by former President Hamid Karzai.
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 security of vulnerable minorities. 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.
Countering violent extremism while promoting good governance and the rule of law remains essential. Ahead of the presidential elections the government must take proximate steps to ensure that all voters are able to safely participate in the political process.
The UN, United States and other international stakeholders should support the inclusion of civil society, women and representatives of ethnic and religious minority communities in all formal negotiations on Afghanistan's political future.
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 March 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.