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 the country. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has reported that civilians in Taliban-controlled areas suffer widespread human rights abuses, including recruitment of child soldiers and extrajudicial killings. According to the Chief Prosecutor of 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 (US) military may have also committed war crimes, including the torture of detainees and summary executions.
From December 2018 to September 2019 a US government delegation engaged in talks with the Taliban in an effort to end their 18-year war. The talks collapsed in September 2019 when the Taliban launched attacks in Kunduz, Baghlan and Kabul, killing 94 civilians. The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported that the Taliban carried out 8,204 attacks in the final quarter of 2019, the highest tally recorded since 2010, and that US military aircraft dropped or fired 7,423 bombs and missiles throughout 2019, one of the highest totals since 2006. As a result of the escalation, UNAMA reported that there were more civilian casualties in Afghanistan between 1 July and 30 September than in any other three-month period in the past ten years, with 1,174 civilians killed and 3,139 wounded. This brought the total number of civilian casualties in 2019 to more than 10,000 for the sixth year in a row.
Following a resumption of talks during December 2019, the US and Taliban finalized an “agreement for bringing peace” on 29 February. The agreement includes guarantees to prevent the use of Afghan territory by terrorist groups, a timeline for withdrawal of all international forces from Afghanistan, creation of conditions for intra-Afghan negotiations, and a permanent ceasefire. However, shortly after the agreement was finalized the Taliban resumed its military campaign, carrying out 76 attacks across 24 provinces by 4 March, prompting the US to launch renewed airstrikes.
The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K) also continues to operate in Afghanistan, often targeting the minority Shia population. On 18 August ISIL-K carried out 2019’s deadliest bomb attack in Kabul, killing over 80 civilians.
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.
During their 18-year war, the Taliban, as well as government and some international forces, have shown blatant disregard for International Humanitarian Law (IHL). In addition to fighting to expand their territorial control, the Taliban have continued their attacks on civilians in urban areas. Unless sustained action is taken to improve local governance, conflict and insecurity will continue to increase.
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. Civilians also continue to endure airstrikes, including dozens killed in a US drone attack in January.
Although the US-Taliban agreement is a welcome step towards ending the war, the threat of further war crimes and crimes against humanity will continue unless a comprehensive ceasefire is fully implemented. Innocent civilians have previously borne the brunt of failed negotiations and unimplemented ceasefires in Afghanistan.
The Afghan government needs ongoing international support to uphold its responsibility to protect.
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.
The US currently has approximately 12,000 troops in Afghanistan. Some other NATO member states are also considering withdrawing forces from Afghanistan once the US begins their long-planned troop draw-down.
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 12 April 2019 the Court rejected the Chief Prosecutor’s request, citing a lack of cooperation from some governments. The Chief Prosecutor appealed the decision and on 5 March the Appeals Chamber issued a decision allowing the investigation to proceed.
In addition to US-led negotiations with the Taliban, the Russian government hosted Afghan peace talks during February and May 2019. The governments of Germany and Qatar also hosted an Intra-Afghan Dialogue on 7-8 July that brought together Afghan politicians, civil society and the Taliban. Under the provisions of the US-Taliban agreement, intra-Afghan negotiations were set to begin on 10 March 2020. However, the Afghan government has rejected this timeline.
On 10 March the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2513, welcoming the US-Taliban agreement and calling upon the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban to pursue confidence-building measures. The resolution also stipulated that the easing of sanctions is dependent upon sustained progress towards peace.
All parties to the conflict should commit to an immediate ceasefire and the Taliban and Afghan government should commence substantive negotiations. Intra-Afghan talks must include meaningful representation of women, ethnic and religious minorities and civil society and should focus on protecting and promoting human rights. Promoting good governance and the rule of law in Afghanistan also remains essential.
Afghan security forces and all international military forces must prioritize the protection of civilians and strictly adhere to IHL and International Human Rights Law. International forces should strengthen protocols to prevent civilian casualties and increase efforts to ensure the security of vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities.
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.
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Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
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