Populations in Afghanistan are at ongoing risk of mass atrocity crimes as the Taliban continues their armed conflict with the government. Other armed extremist groups are also increasing their attacks on civilians.
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, 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.
Despite talks between the US government and the Taliban to negotiate an end to the war, UNAMA reported that there were more civilian casualties in Afghanistan between 1 July and 30 September 2019 than in any other three-month period during the past ten years, with 1,174 civilians killed and 3,139 wounded. This brought the number of civilian casualties to more than 10,000 for the sixth year in a row. The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction also 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 during 2019.
The US and Taliban finalized a peace agreement 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, creation of conditions for intra-Afghan negotiations, and a permanent ceasefire.
However, shortly after the agreement was finalized the Taliban resumed their military campaign against the Afghan government. The Taliban carried out 76 attacks across 24 provinces in the week following the agreement, prompting the US to launch airstrikes. UNAMA also reported a drastic increase in incidents that killed or injured civilians in the month following the US-Taliban agreement. Intra-Afghan negotiations were set to begin on 10 March, but the Afghan government rejected this timeline. The Taliban have argued that the agreement is reaching a breaking point, citing ongoing US drone strikes and the Afghan government stalling on prisoner releases.
The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K) also continues to operate in Afghanistan, often targeting minority populations. On 25 March ISIL-K attacked the Dharamshala Sikh Temple in Kabul, killing at least 25 civilians. ISIL-K also perpetrated a suicide bombing at a funeral in Nangarhar province on 12 May, killing 32 civilians. That same day armed assailants attacked a maternity hospital in a predominantly Hazara neighborhood in Kabul, killing at least 24 people. At the time of publication no one had claimed responsibility for the attack.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, 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, government troops 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.
Although government forces implemented measures to decrease civilian casualties, ongoing attacks and the use of Improvised Explosive Devices by the Taliban and ISIL-K in populated areas continue to endanger civilians and may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The US-Taliban agreement is a welcome step towards ending the war. However, 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.
Instability in Afghanistan is exacerbated by the political impasse between incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah’s competing claims of victory in the September 2019 presidential election. Both were sworn in as president in separate inauguration ceremonies on 9 March. The international community has encouraged Ghani and Abdullah to reach a settlement in accordance with the constitution.
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. On 10 March the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2513, welcoming the US-Taliban agreement. The resolution also stipulated that the easing of sanctions is dependent upon sustained progress towards peace.
Some US troops began leaving Afghanistan during March in line with the US-Taliban agreement to bring US troop presence down to 8,600 before mid-July. Some other NATO member states are also considering withdrawing forces from Afghanistan. On 23 March the US announced an immediate reduction in aid to Afghanistan by $1 billion, claiming that President Ghani and former Chief Executive Abdullah’s inability to agree on an inclusive government harmed US-Afghan relations.
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. Despite the Court rejecting the Chief Prosecutor’s request during April 2019, on 5 March the Appeals Chamber decided to allow the investigation to proceed.
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 human rights. Promoting good governance and the rule of law 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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