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 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 forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban has made substantial military gains, currently controlling or influencing more than half of the country – more territory than it has controlled at any time since 2001. 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's quarterly report documented the deaths of 2,798 civilians from 1 January to 30 September. Attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government forces using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are the leading cause of civilian casualties. Since 1 January UNAMA has documented over 1,065 civilian deaths due to IEDs and noted that such attacks often target civilians from ethnic and religious groups.
On 19 August the government proposed a four-day ceasefire marking the Eid al-Adha celebration, but the Taliban rejected the ceasefire and fired rockets on Kabul the following day. On 18 October Kandahar Province's governor, police chief and intelligence chief were all assassinated in an attack claimed by the Taliban.
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 during the elections, including attacks against schools used as polling centres." In advance of the elections at least ten candidates were killed, two abducted and four wounded in attacks claimed by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K) and the Taliban. On 13 October at least 22 people were killed in an attack on an election rally in Takhar Province. UNAMA reported that 56 people were killed and over 379 wounded during the voting period.
UNAMA's quarterly report recorded 2,136 children killed or maimed in Afghanistan as of 30 September. According to the UN Secretary-General's annual report on children and armed conflict, the situation in Afghanistan was 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.
ISIL-K has established a significant presence in Afghanistan. ISIL-K attacks have been increasingly directed at the Shia minority, including a 6 September attack at a Kabul sports center in the Shia neighborhood of Dashti-e-Barchi, which killed at least 22 civilians.
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 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 govern. Although government forces implemented successful measures to decrease civilian casualties during 2017, the use of IEDs by the Taliban and ISIL-K in densely populated areas intensified.
Unless sustained action is taken to address corruption, marginalization and political tensions within the Afghan government, conflict and insecurity will continue to increase.
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.
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, 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.
On 9 November Russia hosted peace talks with representatives from the Afghan government, the Taliban, the United States and eleven other governments.
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 November 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.