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 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. Among those killed were 927 children, the highest number recorded during the conflict in a single year. Attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government forces using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were the leading cause of civilian casualties, resulting in over 1,361 civilian deaths. On 6 February the UN Mine Action Service reported that 1,415 civilians were also killed or injured by mines and explosive remnants during 2018. Landmines are banned under international law. Civilians have also been killed by government and international military forces during anti-Taliban operations.
During the first three months of 2019 UNAMA documented 1,773 civilian casualties, including 581 deaths. UNAMA attributes the 23 percent decrease in casualties compared to the same period last year to the reduction in attacks involving IEDs.
Since December 2018 a United States government delegation 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. The Russian government has also hosted parallel peace talks with parties to the conflict. Despite these talks, during April the Taliban announced its annual spring military offensive.
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. These attacks have often targeted the minority Shia population.
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 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. The rise of ISIL-K across Afghanistan has also put civilians – particularly members of the minority Shia community – at elevated risk of mass atrocity crimes. Although government forces implemented measures to decrease civilian casualties, 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 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" 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 September 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.
On 12 April 2019 the ICC rejected the Chief Prosecutor's request to open an investigation, citing a lack of cooperation from governments involved in the situation. On 15 March the United States government announced it would revoke or deny visas to members of the ICC involved in investigating its personnel.
On 29 January the United States and Taliban officials announced their agreement on a framework for the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan. The most recent high-level talks took place in Doha, Qatar, from 1-9 May. 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. All counterterrorism measures should be conducted with respect to distinction, proportionality and precaution. International military forces should also review and strengthen protocols to prevent civilian casualties and ensure transparency regarding the conduct of operations.
Promoting good governance and the rule of law remains essential. Ahead of the presidential elections in September the government must take proximate steps to ensure that all voters are able to safely participate in the political process.
The international community should continue to pursue international justice for war crimes committed in Afghani-stan, regardless of the position, nationality or affiliation of the alleged perpetrator.
Last Updated: 15 May 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.