Since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001 by a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) coalition of military forces, they have conducted an insurgency against the internationally recognized Afghan government. Following the 2014 withdrawal of most foreign forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban have made substantial military gains, currently controlling or influencing more than half of the country. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), civilians in Taliban-controlled areas suffer widespread human rights abuses, including recruitment of child soldiers and extrajudicial killings.
Since December 2018 a United States government delegation has participated in talks with the Taliban in an effort to end the war. The ninth round of negotiations concluded at the end of August with the Taliban and US announcing they were on the verge of reaching a final settlement. However, in the days before the announcement, the Taliban launched a series of deadly attacks in Kunduz, Baghlan and Kabul, killing 45 civilians. A further 49 civilians were killed in suspected Taliban attacks in the days after the announcement of a potential final agreement, prompting US President Donald Trump to call off any further negotiations.
Despite their participation in the talks, since July the Taliban has carried out a number of suicide attacks and car bombings. The UN Security Council (UNSC) condemned these and other recent attacks that have resulted in dozens of civilian deaths. The Taliban has also denounced the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for 28 September, and threatened to attack election rallies. The Taliban has warned that the cancellation of peace talks will lead to increased loss of life.
During the first half of 2019 UNAMA documented 3,812 civilian casualties, including 1,366 deaths. Civilian casualties throughout July 2019, totaling more than 1,500, were the highest documented in a single month since May 2017. The government and international military forces were responsible for the majority of civilian deaths from January to July.
The conflict has had a significant impact on children. Among the 3,804 civilians killed during 2018 were at least 927 children, the highest number recorded during the conflict in a single year. According to the UN Secretary-General's annual report on children and armed conflict, the 3,062 children killed or maimed in Afghanistan constituted the highest number of child casualties in any conflict during 2018. Citing the deteriorating security situation, the UN Children's Fund also documented 192 attacks on schools in 2018, three times the number recorded during 2017. By the end of 2018 more than 1,000 schools had been closed.
According to the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Taliban have 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.
The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K) has also established a significant presence in Afghanistan, carrying out at least 38 terrorist attacks during 2018 and often targeting the minority Shia population. On 18 August ISIL-K carried out the year's deadliest bomb attack in Kabul, killing over 80 civilians and wounding 182.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 2.1 million people in Afghanistan are internally displaced and 2.7 million Afghans are refugees – the second largest refugee population in the world.
As the Taliban regain territory, the number of civilians at risk of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity continues to increase. During their 18-year war, government forces and the Taliban have both shown blatant disregard for International Humanitarian Law (IHL). In addition to fighting to expand their territorial control, the Taliban have escalated attacks on civilians in urban areas.
Progress made by the United States and Taliban towards a potential peace agreement was a welcome development, however the recent collapse of talks greatly raises the risk of increased Taliban attacks on civilians. Moreover, the exclusion of the Afghan government from the peace 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 improve local governance, conflict and insecurity will continue to increase. The upcoming presidential election provides a potential focus for further violence by armed extremist groups.
The rise of ISIL-K has put civilians, particularly members of minority communities, at elevated risk of mass atrocity crimes. Although government forces implemented measures to decrease civilian casualties, the use of improvised explosive devices by the Taliban and ISIL-K in populated areas continues to endanger civilians and may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.
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 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 ICC requested authorization to proceed with an investigation into alleged crimes committed in Afghanistan since May 2003. On 15 March 2019 the United States government announced it would revoke or deny visas to members of the ICC involved in investigating its personnel. On 12 April the Court rejected the Chief Prosecutor's request, citing a lack of cooperation from governments involved in the situation. The Chief Prosecutor has appealed the decision.
In parallel with the United States-led negotiations with the Taliban, the Russian government also hosted peace talks during February and May. The governments of Germany and Qatar hosted an Intra-Afghan Dialogue on 7-8 July that brought together Afghan politicians, civil society and the Taliban.
The international community should continue to support the Afghan government as it combats the Taliban, ISIL-K and other armed extremist groups. Afghan security forces and all international military forces operating within Afghanistan must prioritize the protection of civilians, meaningfully commit to reducing civilian casualties, and strictly adhere to IHL and International Human Rights Law (IHRL). International military forces should strengthen protocols to prevent civilian casualties. Increased efforts should be undertaken to ensure the security of vulnerable minorities.
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 and exercise their franchise.
The international community should continue to pursue international justice for war crimes committed in Afghanistan, regardless of the position, nationality or affiliation of the alleged perpetrator.
Last Updated: 15 September 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.