According to the latest United Nations (UN) figures, during the first half of 2019, in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, pro-government forces including the Afghan military and their international U.S.-led allies were responsible for more civilian deaths than insurgent forces. This marks the first time pro-government forces were found responsible for more civilian deaths than insurgent groups, including the Taliban, amongst others. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), airstrikes that were largely conducted by U.S. warplanes, as part of an aerial campaign against the Taliban killed 363 people in the first half of 2019. In terms of overall civilian casualties, ground engagements made up an estimated one-third of the total, ahead of improvised explosive devices and airstrikes. At the same time, civilian casualties are down overall, with a total of 3812 deaths and injuries during the first six months of this year being the lowest half-year totals for a year since 2012. UNAMA found that there were 985 civilian deaths and injuries resulting from insurgent attacks that deliberately targeted them, from the span of January 1 to June 30 2019. 717 civilians were killed during that span by allied forces versus 531 killed by insurgents, according to the UN. Of that 717, 403 civilians were killed by Afghan soldiers and the remaining 314 by their international allies. The casualties attributed to allied forces is a 31 per cent increase from the same time period in 2018.
UNAMA’s head of human rights, Richard Bennett said, “Parties to the conflict may give differing explanations for recent trends, each designed to justify their own military tactics.” Also stating, “The fact remains that only a determined effort to avoid civilian harm, not just by abiding by international humanitarian law but also by reducing the intensity of the fighting, will decrease the suffering of civilian Afghans.” Patti Grossman, an associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch said, “The claim that the Taliban use civilians as shields is not an excuse for a disproportionate attack.” The U.S. military has rejected the UNAMA findings, indicating that their own evidence gathering was more accurate and underlining their intent of minimizing harm to non-combatants, but did not offer their tally of civilian casualties in their rebuttal.
The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan makes it very difficult for the establishment of a peace process in the long term. Furthermore, in addition to insurgents continuing to target civilians, the high number of casualties linked to the activities of allied pro-government forces raises concerns about the techniques that are being used in combatting the insurgency. The risks that Afghan civilians face from militants as well as from allied airstrikes make life that much more challenging for them. The continuous risk of violence and harm on civilian life is a fundamental problem that must be significantly addressed in any peace treaty that is to be passed in the future, for successful outcomes for the country and its people in the long term.
Civilians in Afghanistan, including children, face a high level of conflict-related violence. In the past six months, 317 children were killed and 880 injured. Currently, peace talks are occurring between the U.S. and the Taliban, whereby there would be a further withdrawal of foreign forces. After the large-scale withdrawal of U.S. troops that concluded at the end of 2016, American-led NATO forces have remained in the country to provide training and assistance to Afghan troops. Concerns have been raised about the parties in the talks using violence to strengthen their respective negotiating positions. The Taliban have rejected a ceasefire and control a considerable amount of Afghanistan.
In building a peace process towards ending the longstanding conflict in Afghanistan, the high level of violence that civilians face on the ground remains a major unaddressed area of concern. While the overall number of civilian casualties has decreased compared to the same months in prior years, the numbers are still far too high and remain an ongoing impediment to the establishment of anything resembling a peaceful state of affairs. It may be time for allied forces to carefully evaluate their methods, as a higher civilian death toll is attributed to their activities versus those of insurgents raises many issues about the efficacy of their tactics and the level of consideration for the safety and wellbeing of the civilian populace of Afghanistan.