Pro-government forces in Afghanistan have killed more civilians than the Taliban in the first months of 2019 as all sides claim they are working actively to prevent civilian deaths.
Casualty figures for the war in Afghanistan seem to reinforce the Taliban’s cruel and bloodthirsty reputation. The militants consistently harm more civilians than any other party to the conflict, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which provides the most thorough casualty reporting.
But recent years have seen a striking new development: casualties caused by the Taliban have fallen, while those attributed to the pro-government side are rising. Indeed, the Afghan government and its allies reportedly killed more civilians in the first months of 2019 than the Taliban, according to UNAMA, the first time this has happened since records began.
“The Afghan gov’t and U.S./coalition forces are on a trajectory in which they could overtake the Taliban as the main cause of war-related civilian deaths,” according to Arif Rafiq, president of Vizier Consulting and a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, who noted the evolving casualty trends in a February twitter thread.
Those trendlines are easy to miss.
UNAMA’s reports lump Afghan insurgent groups such as the Taliban and Daesh/Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) together into a single category—'anti-government elements'—while the Afghan government and its allies, principally the US, fall under the umbrella of 'pro-government forces'.
'Anti-government elements' have always been responsible for the majority of civilian harm. In 2017, they accounted for 65 percent of civilian casualties, according to UNAMA, while pro-government forces were responsible for 20 percent, with 11 percent jointly attributed, and 4 percent 'other'.
In the following year, their share fell to 63 percent, while pro-government casualties rose to 24 percent, with 6 percent 'undetermined anti-government elements', and 13 percent 'crossfire'.
The Taliban are usually responsible for most of the casualties on the “anti-government” side. But since Daesh emerged in Afghanistan a few years ago, its share has risen dramatically.
In 2016, casualties caused by Daesh “increased by nearly ten times” on the previous year, UNAMA notes. In 2018 they rose by a whopping 118 percent.
Casualties attributed to the Taliban alone, by contrast, appear to be dropping.
In 2017, the group killed and injured 12 percent fewer civilians than in 2016. In 2018, Taliban-caused casualties fell again by 7 percent. And, in the first months of 2019, they declined dramatically in the same period last year.
This appears to be a short-term trend. In 2016 Taliban-caused casualties rose on the previous year. However, UNAMA’s report for 2015 only gives overall casualty figures; it does not list numbers of killed and injured. So, it is unclear if the Taliban killed more civilians in 2016 than it did in 2015. Moreover, UNAMA’s report for 2014 does not provide the specific number of casualties caused by the Taliban at all.
TRT World asked UNAMA to provide numbers of those killed and injured by the Taliban in 2015 and the number of Taliban-caused casualties in 2014.
A spokesman for UNAMA, Kirk Kroeker, referred TRT World to its 2015 annual report, saying, “Unfortunately, we’re not in a position to share additional civilian casualty data beyond what we’ve already published.”
UNAMA’s reports do not clearly explain the fall in casualties. When asked if the drop resulted from Taliban measures to protect civilians, another UNAMA spokesman, Liam McDowall, did not answer the question directly but told TRT World that UNAMA had noted certain Taliban statements and actions towards the protection of civilians.
Its reports do not claim that these led to a reduction in casualties, though McDowall also emphasised that the Taliban “continue to cause the most civilian casualties of any party to the conflict.”
Is the Taliban trying to prevent civilian deaths?
UNAMA’s 2017 annual report attributes the drop in civilian casualties by pro-government forces to measures to protect civilians, but it does not attribute the fall in civilian casualties by Taliban forces to protective measures.
In a statement on its English-language website from April 2019, the Taliban announced that the head of UNAMA, Tadamichi Yamamoto, had met its representatives in Doha and “showed his appreciation for the decrease in civilian casualties caused by the Islamic Emirate.”
Asked by TRT World to confirm or deny this claim, UNAMA replied, after a delay, that “it was not in a position to offer comments at this time beyond what the Mission has already stated publicly.”
UNAMA’s reports show that casualties from the Taliban’s signature tactics have fallen.
In 2017, it recorded a 40 percent reduction in casualties from remote-controlled IEDs and a 22 percent fall in those from ‘suicide & complex attacks’, while, in 2018, it cited a 23 percent reduction in casualties from Taliban targeted killings as a key factor.
But it does not attribute the shift to precautions on the Taliban’s part to protect civilians.
Moreover, UNAMA notes at one point that its figures might be underreported because access to Taliban-controlled areas is limited. Its statistics also include a large number of casualties where attribution could not be determined.
The decline in casualties could partly be explained by changing conflict trends.
As pro-government airstrikes have escalated in recent years, the Taliban has gravitated away from large-scale assaults on provincial capitals, such as Kunduz in 2015 and 2016, instead choosing to launch smaller attacks which result in fewer casualties. Conflict-related displacement of civilians may also have led to a reduction in numbers of killed and injured.
In 2019, casualties by anti-government forces fell thanks to a large (76 percent) drop in those killed and injured in suicide IED attacks. UNAMA cautioned that the fall in numbers might be due to winter conditions that prevented fighting while stating that “it is unclear whether the decrease in civilian casualties was influenced by any measures taken by parties to the conflict to better protect civilians, or by the ongoing talks between parties to the conflict.”
But according to Graeme Smith, a consultant for the International Crisis Group, the decline in casualties is intentional.
“You really have seen a dramatic shift in Taliban behaviour to reduce civilian casualties, especially in urban areas,” Smith told TRT World, noting that large-scale suicide attacks, such as the January 2018 ambulance bombing in Kabul, have decreased.
The Taliban has decided to limit such attacks, sources have told the International Crisis Group.
“We’re quite confident that this was a conscious decision by the Taliban, not some kind of accident,” he said. This is partly “related to the peace process,” Smith explained, but also an effort to improve the group’s standing with ordinary Afghans.
“Politically, they have been aiming at legitimacy, and becoming part of the mainstream politics of Afghanistan.”
TRT World asked the Taliban to confirm or deny that it had decided to reduce large-scale attacks during peace talks, but received no reply.
Figures by the Civilian Protection and Advocacy Group (CPAG) also show lower casualty levels in early 2019. But casualties have increased dramatically during Ramadan, according to CPAG, suggesting that the UN’s next report may record higher levels of harm by the Taliban. In May, the group attacked Counterpart International, an NGO in Kabul, killing five people.
Although the Taliban did not declare a ceasefire during Eid, as some had hoped, attacks appeared to decrease over the holiday, according to data compiled by the New York Times, while the usually incessant stream of battlefield reporting on its English-language website stopped.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, confirmed to TRT World over Whatsapp that, “We had reduced the number of attacks in the days of Eid,” but did not say there had been a ceasefire.
According to Kate Clark, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, pressure from UNAMA and the media has made the Taliban somewhat sensitive to the issue of civilian harm.
“It has put the issue on the agenda for them,” Clark told TRT World. “It hurts them to be seen as associated with civilian casualties.”
The Taliban has a regular dialogue with UNAMA, helping to highlight humanitarian issues.
But who exactly counts as a civilian?
The Taliban emir’s annual Eid message typically admonishes fighters to protect the civilian population. This year’s statement by Emir Hibatullah is no exception, instructing fighters to “pay extreme attention to safeguarding the life and property of people during military operations”.
The Taliban’s announcement of its al Fath spring offensive this year urges “the prevention of civilian casualties.”
The Taliban has gradually imposed tighter rules on its fighters as part of a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign, straight out of the US-led coalition's handbook to win over the support of the local population.
The layha, its code of conduct, orders Taliban members to protect civilians while placing restrictions on extra-judicial killing. These constraints have at times been violated, but the leadership has made a “genuine effort” to avoid arbitrary violence, according to Taliban expert Antonio Giustozzi.
However, the Taliban’s definition of civilian seems to exclude employees and allies of the government, such as judicial staff and tribal leaders, who have been targeted in violation of international law.
“One of the main concerns in the area of civilian protection is that the Taliban do not respect the non-combatant status of people who work for the government,” said Patricia Gossman, senior researcher on Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch.
The Taliban did not respond to request for comment on their definition of civilians.
The movement has issued many statements vowing to protect civilians, with 32 in 2016 alone, according to UNAMA. It has also established mechanisms for investigating civilian casualties.
In 2014, the Taliban announced the creation of a Department for the Prevention of Civilian Casualties, which apparently operates throughout Afghanistan. The department is listed on the group’s English-language website, with contact details for those wishing to report complaints by phone or email.
The Taliban releases highly detailed reports of civilian casualties from enemy operations, giving the date and place of the incidents in question, the names of those injured and killed, and even the value of property destroyed.
These figures are often exaggerated, but there is some overlap with UNAMA’s findings.
“They may not be far apart on big airstrikes and raids,” said Patricia Gossman, “but their claims about who is a civilian need to be verified as they often deny fighters are among them which isn’t always true”.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told TRT World that the civilian casualties department does not just concentrate on enemy abuses.
“They investigate claims against Mujahidin, take findings to courts for trials and hand punishments if proven guilty,” he said. But, according to UNAMA’s 2016 report, the Taliban had provided no specific examples of accountability for its fighters.
Afghan civilians under a constant yoke
While the Taliban seems to have been killing and injuring fewer civilians, casualties attributed to the Afghan government and US have risen, partly due to an uptick in airstrikes under Trump.
In 2018 a substantial 61 percent increase in civilian casualties from aerial operations was recorded, with most caused by international military forces.
In the first months of 2019, casualties from pro-government airstrikes reached the highest level on record, contributing to an overall 39 percent rise in civilians killed or injured - 13 percent of the total number of civilian casualties.
A spokesperson for the US-led NATO Resolute Support mission said, “We do not have anything to add.” The Afghan government did not respond to request for comment.
Casualties from search operations by pro-government militias such as the Khost Protection Force, often operating in partnership with the CIA, have also risen dramatically, by 185 percent in 2018.
Trump apparently intensified CIA-backed paramilitary operations in Afghanistan in 2017.
Such abuses have reportedly driven disaffected Afghans to support the Taliban. Concerns about blowback from civilian casualties led former US and NATO commander Gen. (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal to tighten the rules of engagement in 2009.
“The Trump administration’s escalation of the air war has prevented the Taliban from taking control of urban centres,” Arif Rafiq told TRT World, “but it’s also likely damaging support for Afghan and coalition forces in rural parts of the country.”
The Taliban is quick to exploit alleged enemy atrocities in its propaganda, presenting itself as the defender of the Afghan nation against brutal foreign invaders and their “puppet” regime in Kabul.
The group disseminates a flood of videos and other material highlighting supposed war crimes, for example, “Hidden Crimes”, a series of short films shared with the author that highlights Afghan and American raids and airstrikes.
Taliban propaganda has also capitalised on impunity for enemy abuses. Trump’s administration pressured the International Criminal Court to end its probe into the Afghan war, which could have implicated CIA personnel and is reportedly considering pardons for several convicted and suspected war criminals, including one accused of murdering an unarmed Afghan.
A Taliban video shared with the author mentions the potential pardons, saying “such cases are repeated daily in Afghanistan.”
The US and Afghan governments have also failed to investigate incidents appropriately.
However, there have been improvements in targeting by Afghan forces, which resulted in a marked drop in civilian casualties during ground engagements in 2017, thanks to reduced use of mortars and other weapons.
In March, President Ghani responded to reports of civilian casualties by ordering his forces to take greater precautions, and Afghanistan has moved forward with a new national policy for mitigating civilian harm.
The Taliban might be killing fewer civilians, but at the same time, pro-government forces are bringing that number back up. Afghan civilians can't seem to catch a break in a war that is still one of the deadliest conflicts in the world.