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Afghans Tentatively Talk Peace in a Year of Rising Violence

Negotiating Parties Should End Unlawful Attacks on Civilians

Friends and families of people killed in the conflict gathered in a cemetery to call for a ceasefire from the parties to the intra-Afghan peace talks taking place in Doha, Qatar, September 14, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

The painstaking pace of peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban means that it could be a long time before the participants address the most contentious issues, including the call for a ceasefire that President Ashraf Ghani made at the United Nations General Assembly this week.

Afghans should not have to wait for a ceasefire for both sides to end attacks that inflict large numbers of civilian deaths and injuries.  

The Taliban’s increased use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is behind much of the rising civilian toll. Magnetic explosive devices that often detonate in populated areas and pressure plate IEDs that act like antipersonnel mines have already killed over 700 Afghan civilians and injured hundreds in 2020, a 50 percent increase over 2019. Explosive devices that are victim-activated are banned under the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, to which Afghanistan is party. They are prohibited regardless of whether they were assembled in a factory or improvised from locally available materials.

The weight of a child is enough to set one off, and children make up over one-third of the civilian casualties from pressure plate IEDs. Last May, three boys under 12 were killed when they triggered an IED on a road in Badghis.

Civilian vehicles frequently detonate IEDs on public roads. Four family members, including a small child, were killed in June when their vehicle struck an IED in Ghazni. In June in Kabul, a magnetic IED claimed the lives of Fatima “Natasha” Khalil and Javid Folad of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

The Taliban – who have committed to not using anti-personnel mines – should cease deploying these weapons and remove those that have been planted.

At the same time, civilian casualties from Afghan government airstrikes have tripled in 2020, compared to 2019. Women and children comprised 65 percent of deaths and injuries. On September 19, government airstrikes against the Taliban in Kunduz killed at least 10 civilians, among them people retrieving the injured and dead from bombed houses. Airstrikes that cause indiscriminate or disproportionate civilian harm are unlawful, but the Afghan government has a poor track record of investigating such incidents. The United States, which arms and trains the Afghan air force, has also failed to adequately investigate civilian airstrike casualties.

The Taliban and Afghan government blame each other for ramping up attacks, but they don’t need to wait for a ceasefire before they do more to protect civilians. Countries backing the negotiations should press them to stop engaging in unlawful means and methods of warfare. Until that happens, ordinary Afghans will pay the price.  

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