With Afghan peace talks making little progress, the latest report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) makes for grim reading. Although 2020 saw an overall decline in civilian casualties — the lowest numbers since 2013 — a slew of attacks targeting civilians has spread terror and undermined trust crucial for a future settlement.
Following the United States-Taliban agreement a year ago, both US airstrikes and the Taliban’s large-scale urban suicide attacks decreased. This helps explain the 15 percent decline in civilian deaths and injuries for 2020. The Islamic State (ISIS) also claimed fewer attacks. However, the last quarter of the year saw a jump in apparently targeted attacks on civilians.
Human rights defenders and journalists were killed in such attacks in 2020, along with more than 700 civil servants, members of the judiciary, and politicians. Although most of these attacks went unclaimed, many followed death threats made by Taliban commanders against the media and civilian government employees.
The Taliban’s increased use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), including pressure-plate IEDs that act like antipersonnel mines, killed 727 people and injured 1,569. The Taliban have committed to not using these indiscriminate weapons, but nonetheless continue to do so. They should immediately cease deploying them and remove those already planted.
Another extremely worrying trend is the 126 percent increase in civilian casualties caused by the Afghan Air Force, with 341 killed and 352 injured. This is the highest number of civilian casualties UNAMA has ever attributed to Afghan government airstrikes. Government forces were also responsible for numerous deaths of children, many of them in airstrikes. The government should be investigating possible laws-of-war violations by its forces; instead it has responded by threatening with arrest journalists and local officials who report these civilian casualties.
Governments backing the peace talks should be using their political leverage — and promised future recognition and support — to press the Taliban for an immediate end to targeted attacks on civilians and a commitment from all sides to avoid civilian harm.