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. However, as an agreement was being finalized, the Taliban launched attacks in Kunduz, Baghlan and Kabul, killing 94 civilians. The US cancelled further negotiations, but US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad resumed talks during December.
After talks collapsed in September, Afghan security forces and the US military escalated operations against the Taliban, who also increased their attacks on civilian areas. 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 8,200.
Meanwhile, over 12,500 children have been killed or maimed in Afghanistan since 1 January 2015, accounting for one-third of all civilian casualties. More than 2,400 children were killed or injured in the first nine months of 2019. The UN Children’s Fund also documented 192 attacks on schools in 2018, three times the number recorded during 2017.
The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K) continues to operate in Afghanistan, often targeting the minority Shia population. On 18 August ISIL-K carried out the year’s deadliest bomb attack in Kabul, killing over 80 civilians.
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.
The threat of further war crimes and crimes against humanity has escalated since peace talks were suspended in September. Despite the resumption of negotiations between the US government and the Taliban, the Taliban still refuses to engage with the Afghan government. Without a meaningful commitment to a ceasefire by all parties to the conflict, the threat to civilians will continue.
During their 18-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 continued 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.
The Afghan government needs ongoing international support to uphold its responsibility to protect.
Since 2011 the UN Security Council has imposed an arms embargo and sanctions on individuals or entities who support the Taliban and its affiliates.
At the July 2016 NATO Summit member states pledged to sustain their assistance to Afghan security forces until 2020. The US currently has approximately 13,000 troops in Afghanistan.
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 15 March 2019 the US government announced it would deny visas to members of the ICC investigating its personnel. On 12 April the Court rejected the Chief Prosecutor’s request, citing a lack of cooperation from governments involved in the situation. The Chief Prosecutor has appealed the decision.
In addition to the US-Taliban talks, 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.
The international community should continue to support the Afghan government as it combats the Taliban, ISIL-K and other armed extremist groups. 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. International military forces should strengthen protocols to prevent civilian casualties and increase efforts to ensure the security of vulnerable minorities.
Promoting good governance and the rule of law remains essential. All parties to the conflict should commit to an immediate ceasefire. Any resulting talks must include meaningful representation of women, ethnic and religious minorities, and civil society.
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.
Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date on R2P news and alerts
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA