Behind the Statistics: Drop in civilian casualties’ masks increased Taliban violence
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)
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 center 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 civilian’s casualties is that the Taliban 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 Taliban 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.
It is important to pick apart the Taliban figures, however. Firstly, although the overall civilian casualties are lower, that reduction was brought about by the Taliban 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 Taliban 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 Taliban 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 Taliban attacks.
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 Taliban have been attacking their fellow Afghans this year can be seen in the graph below which uses ACLED data. It shows the Taliban responsible for the bulk of attacks this year, especially since the US-Taliban agreement was signed.
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
Looking through the ACLED incident reports, and the types of ‘event’ 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. 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. People living in cities such as Kabul, Lashkargah, Kandahar, Sar-e Pul, Herat, Tirin Kot and Ghazni will recognize 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 Taliban, 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.
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. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported in July that “the majority of ANDSF forces remain in defensive positions.”