Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Behind the Statistics: Drop in civilian casualties masks increased Taleban violence

Kate Clark 15 min

Six weeks after intra-Afghan talks began in Doha, the Taleban and government teams are still arguing about protocol and what should be on the agenda. Meanwhile, UNAMA’s third quarterly report in 2020 on the protection of civilians in the conflict, published today, shows that, since the talks began, civilian casualties caused by the two parties now talking in Doha have actually increased. Data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) also shows little abatement in the violence and the Taleban as responsible for the bulk of attacks. Here, AAN’s Kate Clark unpicks trends in the violence afflicting Afghanistan and considers how the Taleban have so far taken advantage of the stronger position which the peace process has left them in.

civcasA wounded child is carried to hospital after a car bomb targeted a government building in the Ghanikhel district of Nangrahar province on 3 October 2020. More than forty people were reported injured and 15 killed. Photo: Noorullah Shirzada / AFP

This report draws on two data sets – UNAMA’s third quarterly report of 2020 on the harm suffered by civilians in the Afghan conflict and ACLED’s documenting of incidents of violence, (1) which have been collated and illustrated by data analyst, Roger Helms. The report is also part of ongoing work analysing the Afghan conflict since the United States and Taleban signed their agreement in the Qatari capital, Doha, on 29 February 2020. (2) 

Not as hopeful as it might seem

On the face of it, the UNAMA’s Q3 report looks more hopeful than usual. It recorded a 30 per cent drop in the overall number of civilian casualties in the first nine months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. This was the lowest number for the first nine months of any year since 2012. However, as UNAMA points out, the Afghan war is still one of the most deadly in the world, causing “inordinate and shocking” harm to civilians, so this is a drop from extremely high numbers of civilians killed and injured to still very high numbers. Moreover, the details of the report do not point to hopeful long-term trends. 

Less involvement in the war by US forces and the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) accounts for most of the reduction in civilian casualties. ISKP caused far fewer casualties in the first nine months of 2020 than in 2019 with a 61 per cent drop from 1,014 (230 killed and 784 injured) in 2019 to 392 (132 killed, 260 injured) in 2019. (The UNAMA report only covers casualties up to the end of September so does not include the most recent atrocity claimed by ISKP, the attack on the Kawsar-e Danish educational centre in Dasht-e Barchi in west Kabul on 24 October which killed at least 30 people and injured more than 70, most of them children and young adults attending classes.) 

The US-Taleban agreement of 29 February bound the US to cease offensive action against the Taleban. Since then, UNAMA reports, there has been a “sharp drop” in US airstrikes, and civilian casualties caused by international forces have “all but ceased.” 

The third factor bringing down overall civilians casualties is that the Taleban have carried out far fewer large-scale urban suicide and complex attacks. This reduced the overall number of civilian casualties attributed by UNAMA to the Taleban by about a third this year compared to last year: 2,643 civilian casualties (1,021 killed, 1,622 injured) in the first nine months of 2020, compared to 3,901 civilian casualties (961 killed and 2,940 injured) in 2019. This trend, already noted before the 29 February agreement, has come about as the Taleban have largely refrained from attacks on towns, cities and major military centres. 

It is important to pick apart the Taleban figures, however. Firstly, although the overall civilian casualties are lower, that reduction was brought about by the Taleban injuring fewer civilians in 2020 than in 2019, and they actually killed more civilians (1,021 in 2020 compared to 961 in 2019). Also, it seems that many Taleban attacks have gone undeclared this year. UNAMA found that the number of civilians killed and injured by ‘undetermined’ insurgents increased by half in the first nine months of 2020 compared to 2019 and now represent seven per cent of all civilian casualties. This trend can be seen even more startlingly in the ACLED data, more on which below. Finally, although the number of civilian casualties caused by the Taleban has been lower than last year, this does not reflect any reduction in violent incidents. This year has seen short periods of reduced violence, including over the two Eids and in the eight days leading up to the signing of the 29 February agreement, but overall, there has been a net increase in Taleban attacks.    

Graph by R Helms for AAN, updated from the one originally published to show data for the week 17 October 2020

The US has repeatedly accused the Taleban of violating a verbal agreement made alongside the written agreement signed in Doha that both sides should substantially reduce violence. The Taleban dispute this, saying the agreement only bound them not to target US forces and left them at liberty to attack government forces and personnel. Just how much the Taleban have been attacking their fellow Afghans this year can be seen in the graph below which uses ACLED data. It shows the Taleban responsible for the bulk of attacks this year, especially since the US-Taleban agreement was signed. 

Also apparent from the graph is how many attacks were carried out by groups which ACLED could not identify. Such attacks have increased both since 29 February and compared to last year. Unidentified group attacks have doubled this year compared to last. Attacks on civilians have more than doubled. ‘Armed clashes’ between armed groups tripled. In some weeks, the attacks attributed by ACLED to ‘unidentified groups’ outnumbered those attributed to the US and ANSF combined.

Looking through the ACLED incident reports, and the types of attack carried out by the unidentified groups shown in the table below, it is evident that the vast majority involved insurgent tactics, particularly the use of IEDs.

Graph by Roger Helms for AAN

The Taleban appear to be the likely perpetrator of most, alongside a small number probably perpetrated by ISKP and with some government attacks that did not get attributed and private murders added in. Also notable from the data set is the concentration of attacks by unidentified groups in Afghanistan’s urban areas, especially provincial capitals, as can be seen in the map below. Only 24 per cent of the Taleban’s identified attacks hit provincial capitals, versus 56 per cent of attacks by unidentified actors. People living in cities such as Kabul, Lashkargah, Kandahar, Sar-e Pul, Herat, Tirin Kot and Ghazni will recognise this pattern after months of what has seemed to be the increased threat of magnetic bombs and other devices: they may have been mostly spared large-scale attacks this year, but have still been threatened by smaller-scale acts of violence. As AAN reported in August, the Taleban, like other parties to the conflict has been reporting their attacks much more sparingly since 29 February and this is the likely reason for the ballooning in unattributed insurgent attacks. 

Map by Roger Helms for AAN

The decrease in ANSF attacks since 29 February is also noticeable in the ACLED database. The ANSF first took a ‘defensive posture’ after the signing of the US-Taleban agreement in the hopes of encouraging a more general reduction in  violence, and since 7 April, an ‘active defensive’ posture, which means forces can make pre-emptive strikes to prevent enemy attacks, but not take offensive actions. However, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported in July that “the majority of ANDSF forces remain in defensive positions.” This stance has major implications for civilians: as Taleban attacks on ANSF positions have increased this year, if they fire from civilian-populated areas and the ANSF responds, the ANSF is failing to avoid killing and injuring civilians. This trend shows up clearly in UNAMA’s reporting which is looked at in more detail below. 

The UNAMA report in detail 

In the first nine months of 2020, UNAMA documented 5,939 civilian casualties: 2,117 Afghan civilians were killed and 3,822 injured. 

Who is killing and injuring civilians?

Source: UNAMA Q3 report (page 5)

The chart above taken from the UNAMA report illustrates the percentage of civilian casualties which UNAMA documented the various parties to the conflict as being responsible for, in the first nine months of the 2019. Altogether, UNAMA attributes 59 per cent of civilian casualties to insurgents of different stripes and 27 per cent to the various pro-government forces. 

How are civilians being killed and injured?

Source: UNAMA Q3 report (page 4)

The second chart, again taken from the UNAMA report illustrates how civilians were killed and injured in the first nine months of 2020. The pattern is somewhat different from 2019 when more harm was caused by suicide and complex attacks (22 per cent) and air strikes (11 per cent), IEDs caused about the same harm (20 per cent) and less harm to civilians was caused by ground engagements (28 per cent) and targeted killings (8 per cent). Search operations, which led to three per cent of all civilian casualties in the first nine months of 2019, do not even appear in UNAMA’s latest report after the cessation of night raids by the US-supported (reportedly CIA) NDS special forces and Khost Protection Force. 

Looking at civilian casualties resulting from ground engagements, UNAMA gives the following breakdown: 43 per cent caused by pro-government forces, 31 per cent by anti-government elements and 26 per cent coming from crossfire or other types of incidents. (3) UNAMA is especially concerned by government forces’ use of indirect fire, including large-calibre howitzers, mortars and rockets, particularly when these are fired into civilian-populated areas. The Afghan National Army (ANA) was responsible for more than three-quarters of the casualties caused by such fire by all pro-government forces in ground engagements in the first nine months of this year. Women and children, caught at home or near home, made up nearly three out of every four of these casualties. 

At the same time, the Afghan Air Force is also killing and injuring more civilians this year than last year – 349 civilian casualties (156 killed and 193 injured), an overall increase of 70 per cent, and an increase in fatalities of 50 per cent. Afghan Air Force strikes “often hit civilian homes,” reports UNAMA, “causing on average, more than five civilian casualties per civilian casualty incident.” 

UNAMA reiterates its call to the government to stop using indirect fire (mortars, rockets, grenades) in populated areas and to “continue to develop and improve tactical directives, rules of engagement and other procedures in relation to the use of armed aircraft.” It reminds the government that its “obligation to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians is not lessened” even when insurgents intentionally position themselves with civilians “in order to prevent themselves from being targeted” (often referred to as civilian or human shielding). It also reminds insurgents that “such co-location is prohibited under international humanitarian law.” 

UNAMA has documented a drop of 51 per cent in the civilian casualties caused by IEDs this year compared to 2019 (no breakdown by insurgent group is given), but also notes the Taleban’s increasing use of pressure-plate IEDs, which are triggered by anyone walking or driving over them. These are inherently indiscriminate and therefore considered unlawful devices and indeed were banned by Taleban leader Mullah Omar when the group was in power. 43 per cent more civilians were killed and injured by pressure plate IEDs in 2020 than in 2019, “almost all,” said UNAMA “attributed to the Taleban.” 

UNAMA also tracked a sharp rise in targeted killings by insurgents, the majority of which it again attributes to the Taleban. These resulted in 1,148 civilian casualties (527 killed and 621 injured), an increase of more than four-fifths compared to 2019. The Taleban and ISKP deem many people considered civilian by international humanitarian law as legitimate targets and UNAMA reports that in 2020, insurgents deliberately targeted those working in the education, health and humanitarian sectors, members of the judiciary, tribal elders, religious leaders and civilian government employees. Just this week, the Taleban reiterated this stance. Their spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahed, promised more killings, in an interview published on 24 October:

All troops and workers serving in the Kabul administration have waged a war against Muslims for the past twenty years. They are not ordinary folks but a bunch of criminals and mercenaries who have opposed Islam, and despite their proclamation of faith, their killing is not prohibited. So long as they do not repent and accept an Islamic system and continue to operate as an obstacle hindering the establishment of an Islamic system, they shall continue to be killed until that time and there is no prohibition in such a course of action.

Fighting… and not talking much

It is six weeks since the start of intra-Afghan talks in Doha on 12 September. The first ever official talks between the Taleban and a government delegation was opened with much ceremony in the Qatari capital of Doha and attended by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and other international dignitaries. Little progress has been made. The two teams are still trying to agree on ground rules and an agenda for the talks. Tolo News reported on 25 October ‘sources’ saying that both sides had agreed that Qatar should “play a role as mediator to break the impasse over the disputed points.” An annex to this report lays out the details of developments, such as they are. 

The war did intervene in events in Doha on 15 October, when the midwife to the peace process, US Envoy for Peace Zalmay Khalilzad, and the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Austin ‘Scott’ Miller met Taleban representatives after the Taleban had mounted attacks on the capital of Helmand, Lashkargah, and its surroundings. It was the latest American appeal (read about an earlier one here) to the Taleban to reduce the violence to give the peace talks a chance. Khalilzad reported afterwards: “We agreed to re-set actions by strictly adhering to the implementation of all elements of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement and all commitments made.” A Taleban delegate told the Associated Press (AP), that they had agreed to suspend attacks in Helmand but only after the US envoys had promised to halt the drone strikes, night raids and air assaults against the Taleban. The Taleban accuses the US of breaking its agreement not to attack. The US says it retains the right under the agreement to defend its allies when they are being attacked. As yet, as can be seen in the graph above showing attacks, no ‘re-set’ has been seen in the Taleban’s use of violence.

The state of the conflict and the talks

The US-Taleban agreement has already had a profound impact on the war in Afghanistan. It largely removed the US military from the battlefield. With the threat of air strikes and night raids gone, the Taleban have been able to mass and move in large numbers in ways impossible for them since President Barack Obama ordered US forces not to attack Taleban in 2015, a time when they took large swathes of territory from the government. For civilians in areas controlled by the Taleban, as we have reported previously, life has taken on a semblance of normality as airstrikes and night raids have largely disappeared. Before the Doha agreement in the first few weeks of the year, at least 110 civilians were killed or injured in US airstrikes (41 casualties could not be attributed). Since the agreement, six have been killed or injured. 

As for the Taleban, their interpretation of the agreement has left them feeling at liberty to attack government forces and personnel, with the only restriction, which they say is self-imposed, on not attacking major population and military centres. Afghan civilians living in cities have seen a reduction, but not a cessation, in mass casualty terrorist incidents. However, in many places targeted killings, overwhelmingly attributed to the Taleban, have increased. 

As we recently reported, for the ANSF, the ‘active defense’ order has left police and soldiers in bases and checkposts feeling under siege from the Taleban, frustrated and demoralised. AAN has heard complaints from members of the ANSF, including senior personnel, that they are not allowed by ‘the Americans’ or Resolute Support or the president since the Doha agreement to conduct offensive operations. As one ANA commander of a small outpost in Kunduz told us, a “one-sided ceasefire” had been imposed, making the situation “much worse than before.”

We put these complaints to the US military. A US Defence official said the ANSF were under no restrictions. They were under no obligation to not conduct offensive operations, but the US-Taleban agreement “limits what types of operations the US can support.” He said the agreement did not allow the US to support offensive operations, but the US military “can and will defend the ANDSF [Afghan National Defence and Security Forces] from attacks by the Taleban.” If nothing else, the response of the ANSF to lower levels or a different type of US support may show how dependent the ANSF has been on its international ally. For civilians living near ANSF bases and checkposts, the ‘active defense’ posture and the unchecked Taleban has meant an intensification of the war. For them, life has become far more dangerous. 

Almost eight months on from the US-Taleban agreement, it is evident how it has tipped the balance of power in the conflict in the Taleban’s favour. The concessions made by Khalilzad to bring the Taleban to the negotiating table – the removal of the US largely from the battlefield, the withdrawal of the first tranche of US troops, the release of 5,000 Taleban prisoners from government custody and the boost to the movement’s international legitimacy – have sharpened the Taleban’s military edge and heightened their confidence. 

The reverse is also true. Members of the ANSF are less confident and those in the field are feeling not only the absence of the Americans, but also wondering whether the government in Kabul has their backs. Anxiety has only been heightened by the uncertainty over whether the US will even be around next year. The US-Taleban agreement specifies that all international troops should have withdrawn from Afghanistan by 1 May 2021, although this is conditional on the Taleban’s “commitment and action on the obligations” outlined in the agreement. These conditions are to do with starting intra-Afghan negotiations and not allowing released prisoners, Taleban members and “other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” If the US next president wants to stay in Afghanistan, there is enough wriggle room in the agreement for this to be done; the question is whether he will want to. 

So far, neither the US-Taleban agreement nor the start of intra-Afghan talks have brought about a reduction in Taleban attacks, only US and ANSF attacks. Talking and fighting can be normal companions during peace talks and it is also usual for two sides to spend time determining protocol and an agenda. Even so, there is little sign that this particular peace process has blunted the Taleban’s eagerness, in any way, to pursue war. Major offensives such as the recent one on Helmand have been few, but that appears to be due to Taleban reluctance to risk drawing the US back into the conflict, rather than to lack of desire or capability. The recent statement of Mujahed’s, that it is permissible to kill fellow Afghans who testify to their Muslim faith if they oppose the Emirate, is chilling. In the same interview, he went on to promise more fighting and killing, even after foreign forces have left until there is the ‘re-establishment’ of an “Islamic government.” He asserted that “until the rule of Islam takes hold in our homeland, Jihad continues to remain mandatory and Afghans obligated to wage Jihad until such an eventuality.”

The pursuit of this goal is, of course, continuing to cause Afghan civilians to be killed and injured in unconscionable numbers. This report has been a rather dry look at statistics and tactics. Yet the last few pages of UNAMA’s report testify to the human cost of the war and the enduring harm suffered by the victims of war and their families – the long-term disabilities and disfigurements, the nightmares and trouble sleeping caused by lasting emotional and mental distress, the financial ruin suffered by families losing breadwinners or faced with expensive medical bills, and the enduring fear which stops victims going to weddings, visiting family and friends, going to the mosque, or to school. So, this report ends with a quote from woman living in the northeast whose husband was killed in crossfire, which is taken from the UNAMA report:

My husband fell to the ground, on the street. Nobody was there to help him, and he remained there until he died due to serious bleeding. My husband was not a rich man, but he was everything to me and my children […] Since he is not with us, I feel alone with thousands of responsibilities for my children […] I do not have even one afghani to pay for our treatment. I wish I were not alive to see this situation. 

Edited by Rachel Reid

(1) ACLED collects the dates, actors, locations, fatalities and modalities of all political violence and protests across Afghanistan (and other countries) that are reported in open sources; these include independent media, both Afghan and international, state-run media and Taleban websites. The method used by Roger Helms collates incidents reported by the independent press. (See our August report on the war for more on this.)

(2) Previous reports were:

Andrew Quilty, Taleban Opportunism and ANSF Frustration: How the Afghan conflict has changed since the Doha agreement, 12 October 2020;

Kate Clark, War in Afghanistan in 2020: Just as much violence, but no one wants to talk about it, 16 August 2020;

Reza Kazemi and Fazl Rahman Muzhary, Covid-19 in Afghanistan (4): A precarious interplay between war and epidemic19 June 2020;

Kate Clark, Voices from the Districts, the Violence Mapped (2): Assessing the conflict a month after the US-Taleban agreement, 8 April 2020;

AAN team, Voices from the Districts, the Violence Mapped (1): What has happened since the reduction in violence ended?, 21 March 2020.

(3) From 1 January to 30 September 2020, UNAMA documented 2,275 civilian casualties (606 killed and 1,669 injured) from ground engagements. Pro-government Forces were responsible for 986 civilian casualties (270 killed and 716 injured). Anti-government elements were responsible for 704 civilian casualties (177 killed and 527 injured). UNAMA also documented 585 civilian casualties (159 killed and 426 injured) to crossfire and other types of incidents.

Annex: Developments in Doha at the intra-Afghan talks

12 September Start of Intra-Afghan talks in Doha. Two teams, led by Dr Abdullah and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, met in the presence of US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo and other international dignitaries.

A small contact group is established to hammer out a code of conduct for holding the talks and an agenda. It comprises: Muhammad Masum Stanekzai, Nader Nadery, Zarar Ahmad Muqbil, Fawzia Kufi, Enayatullah Baligh, Muhammad Natiqi, Khalid Nur (government) and from the Taleban, Mawlawi Abdul Kabir, Abbas Stanekzai, Nurullah Nuri, Shahabuddin Delawar and Qasim Turkman. (For biographies, see here)

Some of an initial 23 points were reported swiftly settled, including starting each session with a recitation of the Quran, ending with prayers, taking lunch breaks and treating each other with respect. Others were trickier. According to Al-Jazeera, as of 23 September, “small changes” in language which had taken “a lot of back and forth between the two sides” were also resolved, including changing “Quran and Sunnah” to “sharia,” “social justice” to “Islamic justice,” and “jihad” to “conflict.” From the beginning, though, two sticking points emerged. 

A. The jurisprudence to resolve any disputes arising during the talks. The Taleban want Hanafi jurisprudence to be used only. This is the school of Sunni Islam to which most Sunni Muslim Afghans, including the Taleban, adhere. This option would give no provision for Afghan Shias or the tiny Hindu and Sikh populations. 

B. The status of the US-Taleban agreement reached on 29 February 2020. The Taleban has demanded it be recognised as the ‘mother deal’ underlying the intra-Afghan negotiations. The government was not part of this agreement and has suggested four alternatives, according to Tolo News, reporting on 25 September:

1: The terms of the US-Taleban agreement could be accepted as underlying the talks, but the terms of the joint declaration between the Afghan government and the US and the Afghan government and NATO should also be accepted as applicable.
2: Neither the US-Taleban agreement nor the joint declarations be recognised as having any authority and the negotiations move forward based on the decisions of the Consultative Loya Jirga held in Kabul on 7 August. 
3: Talks start “based on the national interest of Afghanistan.”
4: The Quran and Hadith are the main authority for the talks, replacing all others.

15 October US Envoy for Peace Zalmay Khalilzad and commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller met Taleban representatives to discuss a reduction in violence after the Taleban mounted attacks on the capital of Helmand, Lashkargah, and its surroundings.

20 October The contact group is reduce to three members each: Ghulam Faruq Majruh, Fatima Gailani and Rasul Taleb for the government, and Nabi Omari, Qari Din Muhammad and Latif Mansur for the Taleban, reported Tolo News. The two outstanding issues remain – the legal basis for resolving disputes and the status of the US-Taleban agreement.

25 October According to Tolo, both sides agreed that Qatar should “play a role as mediator to break the impasse over the disputed points.” 


Civilian Casualties protection of civilians in the conflict UNAMA