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 minorities.
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. While making substantial military gains during 2017 the Taliban has perpetrated 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. The UN's 2017 strategic review reclassified Afghanistan from a post-conflict situation to an active conflict.
UNAMA's annual report documented the deaths of 3,438 civilians throughout 2017. 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 mortars, rockets and other heavy weapons in civilian-populated areas. On 27 January 103 people were killed when the Taliban drove an ambulance full of explosives into a crowded street in Kabul. This was the largest terrorist attack in Kabul since more than 150 people were killed in a truck bomb attack on 31 May 2017.
On 28 February Afghan President Ashraf Ghani proposed a framework for peace, including a ceasefire, prisoner release, the removal of sanctions and recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political party. In exchange, President Ghani called upon the Taliban to recognize the government of Afghanistan and respect the rule of law. The Taliban has failed to respond.
During 2016 Afghanistan recorded the highest number of verified child casualties since the UN started globally documenting civilian casualties in 2009. The UN Secretary-General's annual report on children and armed conflict documented 3,512 children killed or maimed in Afghanistan during 2016, marking an increase of 24 percent as compared to the previous year. According to the UN Children's Fund, approximately 700 children were killed in the first nine months of 2017.
During 2016 the International Criminal Court (ICC) reported that the Taliban has potentially committed crimes against humanity and war crimes, particularly against civilians perceived to be supporting the Afghan government and foreign forces opposed to Taliban rule. According to the ICC, Afghan security forces and members of the United States military may have also committed war crimes, including the torture of detainees. On 20 November 2017 the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC requested authorization to proceed with an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Afghanistan since May 2003. 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.
As the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) faces military defeat in Syria and Iraq, some supporters - designated the ISIL Khorasan (ISIL-K) - have begun to establish a presence in Afghanistan. ISIL-K has claimed responsibility for several recent terrorist bombings, including a 28 December attack on a Shia cultural center in Kabul which resulted in the death of 41 civilians. A special report released by UNAMA on 7 November documented a significant increase in attacks targeting places of worship and persons exercising their right to religious worship since January 2016. Fifty-one attacks resulted in 850 civilian casualties, including 273 deaths. According to the report, since 2016 these attacks have been increasingly directed at Afghanistan's Shia minority.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 7.4 million people in Afghanistan are in need of humanitarian assistance and over 390,940 people are internally displaced due to ongoing armed conflict.
The Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001, is an armed Sunni extremist movement. As the Taliban has regained territory across Afghanistan, the number of civilians at risk of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity has increased. During their 16-year war, both government forces and the Taliban have shown disregard for International Humanitarian Law (IHL).
The increase in indiscriminate attacks within urban areas appears to mark a shift in Taliban strategy. In addition to fighting to expand territorial control, the Taliban has escalated its attacks on civilians 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 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.
The Afghan government needs structural reform and ongoing international support to uphold its Responsibility to Protect.
At the July 2016 NATO Summit member states pledged to sustain their mission in Afghanistan beyond 2016 and to continue 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. UNAMA's current mandate expires on 17 March 2019. Since 2011 the UNSC has imposed an arms embargo and sanctions on individuals or entities who support the Taliban and its affiliates.
Following a UNSC visit to Afghanistan from 13-15 January, the Council adopted a Presidential Statement reiterating its concern over continuing threats to the security and stability of Afghanistan posed by the Taliban and other armed groups.
The international community should continue to provide support to the Afghan government to help 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 March 2018
The 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.