While the United States and the Taliban are engaged in talks, one fact is evident: As all sides have jockeyed for leverage over the past year, civilians have paid the price with over 10,000 civilian deaths and injuries in 2019, according to a new United Nations report.

Now, it appears the U.S. and the Taliban are on the verge of a deal. On Feb. 22, the U.S. and the Taliban agreed to a partial truce, measured by a seven-day reduction of violence. If this truce holds, the two sides will meet on Feb. 29 to sign a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal and pave the way for intra-Afghan talks on a political settlement. Still, negotiations will be complex, and, as all sides try to strengthen their territorial gains, the potential for further violence remains.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) attributed the majority of casualties (death and injuries)–62 percent—to armed opposition groups (AOG), including 47 percent to the Taliban, 12 percent to the Islamic State Khorosan Group (IS-K), and 3 percent to undetermined AOG. UNAMA attributed 28 percent of casualties to pro-government forces, which includes Afghan security forces (16 percent), international forces (8 percent), 2 percent to pro-government armed groups, and 3 percent to undetermined pro-government groups.

In its annual 2019 report, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) attributed 14 percent of casualties to pro-government forces, 71 percent to the Taliban and 5 percent to IS-K. From January to September 2019, out of the 7,260 casualties tracked by NATO’s Resolute Support Mission (RS), two percent were attributed to international forces, three percent to Afghan forces, 48 percent to unknown AOG, 35 percent to the Talban, and 7 percent to IS-K.

RS, AIHRC, and UNAMA use different methodologies to track civilian harm and differ on legal interpretations of who is a civilian under international humanitarian law (IHL), hence the disparity in numbers. AlHRC and UNAMA also concede that there are likely unrecorded incidents due to inaccessibility to areas of fighting. But irrespective of whose numbers are more accurate, the upward trend in civilian harm is the most urgent matter, which must be addressed and ever more, especially given upcoming negotiations on a political settlement. We know it can be done as both of us have worked on mitigating civilian harm in Afghanistan. This approach requires making civilian protection a key pillar of any political and military strategy.

Civilian Harm Mitigation Efforts

The number of civilians killed in Afghanistan have long been disputed by all parties to the conflict, but there has always been general agreement about the trend lines. When we (representing CIVIC and UNAMA’s Protection of Civilians unit) met with ISAF leadership to discuss civilians killed, we didn’t agree on numbers, but we did agree that some tactics were leading to more harm and improvements could be made. The Taliban also disputed the numbers UNAMA attributed to them even as they admitted their tactics (particularly the use of IEDs and suicide attacks) were the primary causes of harm.

In 2014, as 100,000 ISAF forces withdrew from the country, and ISAF transitioned to the 17,000-strong train and advise RS Mission, many of us urged the transfer of good practices on civilian harm mitigation to Afghan forces and to build the Afghan government’s capacity to track, analyze, and mitigate civilian harm. U.S. forces retained a counterterrorism mission against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and continued to provide air support to Afghan forces. The RS CCMT transitioned to a smaller unit with fewer resources, while RS focused on training and advising Afghan forces.

The Afghan government stood up a nascent structure in 2016 at the Presidential Palace to track civilian harm, and, in 2017, passed a landmark Civilian Casualties Mitigation and Prevention Policy, which commits the government and its forces to mitigate and respond to civilian harm through trainings, policies, and financial assistance to conflict victims. The government does offer apologies when civilian casualties take place, including from President Ashraf Ghani, and provides a small amount of financial assistance to civilians, irrespective of who caused the harm. Still, much remains to be done to implement all aspects of the 2017 policy to track and analyze how to reduce civilian harm attributed to Afghan forces. Notably, when investigations into civilian casualties are conducted, their results are not publicly reported and follow-on mitigation measures are unclear.

The Taliban also has created a Commission for the Prevention of Civilian Casualties and Complaint and, in 2019, created a standard operating procedure outlining investigations, procedures to express condolences, and directives against killing, injuring, and torturing civilians. But UNAMA urged the Taliban to ensure its directives adhere to IHL and to end indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects. UNAMA also noted, failure of the Taliban to undertake accountability measures and its practice of attributing most casualties to other parties.

The Shifting War and Impact on Civilians

As the operational tempo has increased to leverage negotiations, so has civilian harm attributed to both U.S. and Afghan forces. UNAMA reported that in the first quarter of 2019, Afghan and U.S. forces were responsible for 52 percent of casualties compared to 39 percent attributable to AOG. This is the highest level of casualties attributed to pro-government forces since UNAMA began systematic recording in 2009. As talks between the U.S. and the Taliban progressed in 2019, violence increased. In the third quarter, UNAMA attributed the majority of the casualties from indiscriminate suicide attacks to the Taliban.

In 2019, Taliban and IS-K continue to use IEDs and suicide attacks, causing most of the death and injuries in Afghanistan. But in a reversal of a two-year decrease of casualties caused from indirect fires, use of indirect fires by Afghan forces caused 25 percent of the casualties in 2019. Airstrikes were another major cause of casualties. In 2019 alone, the U.S. dropped 7,243 munitions, corresponding with a UNAMA-reported death toll of 559 civilians by U.S. forces for both planned strikes or in support of Afghan forces under threat. In comparison, at the height of the surge in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2011, U.S. aircraft dropped over 5,000 bombs each year, resulting in 187 civilian deaths in 2011 from airstrikes.

While the number of bombs dropped does not necessarily correlate to higher civilian harm (where and how munitions are used are also important factors), the uptick in weapons released seems to be a contributing factor to the number of civilians killed by airstrikes, as does U.S. close air support (CAS) to Afghan forces. These numbers do not reflect the increase in Afghan Air Force (AAF) strikes as these are still unreported, but these may also be important contributors to civilian harm. AAF is not expected to have fully trained tactical air controllers, who help with air-to-ground coordination, until December 2022. These Afghan tactical air controllers (ATACs) are meant to provide a critical check on air power where civilians are concerned. We also see other challenges in air-to-ground coordination, including the accuracy of intelligence received from all sources in real-time during dynamic strikes or close air support.

Following public reporting about civilian casualty incidents from airstrikes in 2019, Ghani met with senior Afghan defense and RS leadership stressing the need for preventing civilian casualties. A new Commander Resolute Support (COMRS) Tactical Guidance was also issued in 2019, which “establishes minimum basis of CIVCAS mitigation and prevention.” The guidance stresses that civilian casualties are “the single greatest threat” to RS. The guidance directs RS forces to “apply tactical patience to prevent” civilian casualties in self-defense or in training advising, and assisting Afghan forces, and “only to use force when required.” This guidance may have been prompted by a series of U.S. strikes that resulted in casualties that the U.S. investigated, such as the U.S. drone strike in September, which killed 30 pine nut farm workers.

Command emphasis on civilian protection is critical to minimize civilian harm. As noted above, such directives were issued and applied during ISAF days with success and reduced civilian harm. It can, however, be inferred based on public data on casualties, that not all ISAF directives were continued under the new U.S. strategy in 2018. Notably, any tactical directive or guidance needs continued command emphasis and dedicated trainings for all incoming troops in order for them to be effective.

Search operations ( or night raids) to capture high value targets have also seen an increase as the U.S. military tries to force concessions for settlement with the Taliban, but these have also resulted in civilian death. CIA-backed Afghan paramilitary forces, nominally belonging to the Afghan intelligence agency (the National Directorate of Security (NDS)), have been accused of summary executions. Night raids have a dark legacy in Afghanistan and were banned by former President Hamid Karzai, but his ban was lifted in 2015. Today, they are led by paramilitary forces, who are not under Afghan military command, and are causing terror across rural Afghanistan. In September, following an incident in Nangarhar, Ghani ordered the attorney general to investigate and hold persons accountable and placed restrictions on search operations by NDS special forces. To date, however, the results of these investigations have not been shared with the public, leaving Afghans unaware of any accountability measures. 

The Way Forward 

We know that anti-government armed opposition groups (AOGs) cause most of the civilian harm in Afghanistan and frequently operate from civilian areas. The use of human shields, while unlawful, is not a new tactic in Afghanistan. However, just because one side engages in unlawful conduct, that does not negate others’ obligations to apply proportionality, distinction, and military necessity to targeting. The question for both Afghan and U.S. forces is how are AOG tactics, including the use of human shields, being studied to devise better training, tactics, sensor tools, technologies, as well as guidance, to minimize civilian harm. This is what ISAF did, and it appears to have been de-prioritized in current operations given the change in strategy.

The U.S. must commit to analyzing causes of harm, including in partnered operations, and ways to address and ensure its new tactical directive on civilian protection is adhered to and disseminated to all troops, including those supporting CIA operations. We understand that NATO is conducting a lessons-learned study on civilian casualties in the RS mission. We hope that comprehensive data is made available to the NATO study group for its analysis, including reports by external organizations.

The Afghan government must fully commit to implementing the 2017 civilian casualty mitigation policy. It must improve tracking of civilian harm by its own forces, through new instructions, and trainings, and resources. It must train its investigations team on best practices on civilian casualty investigations, and make the results public. It should continue to seek international capacity-building to train on air-to-ground coordination and deploy ATACs in all units. Both Afghan and U.S. forces should continue to receive data from external organizations for questioning the fidelity of their own data.

The Taliban must ensure its military operations comply with basic IHL tenants of distinction and proportionality, hold persons accountable for violations, and end indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects.

Intra-Afghan talks have yet to begin and many Afghans predict that 2020 could be as deadly, if not more so, depending on the trajectory of the talks and how each side leverages its position. But Afghans are exhausted of war. In a 2019 survey taken across all 34 provinces—by the Kabul-based Institute of War and Peace Studies—80 percent of Afghans said they believe that a political and not military solution is needed. The Taliban, Afghan government, and the U.S. must hear what Afghan civilians are saying. The Afghan people are owed nothing less.

Image: Afghan civil society activists attend a candlelight vigil for the nine civilians killed in Afghan army shelling, in Kabul on December 6, 2015. Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images