Afghanistan’s Rising Civilian Death Toll Due to Airstrikes, 2017-2020

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Afghanistan’s Rising Civilian Death Toll Due to Airstrikes, 2017-2020

December 7, 2020

About

In 2017, the Pentagon relaxed the rules of engagement in Afghanistan, effectively lifting restraints that were intended to save civilian lives. This was a deliberate policy choice in an effort to gain leverage in negotiations with the Taliban, and civilians have paid a high price. This is particularly evidenced by the 95 percent increase in civilians killed by U.S. and allied forces’ airstrikes between 2017 and 2019 as compared to the previous 10 years.

Link to Report

https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/papers/2020/AirstrikesAfghanistan

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For More Information

This report is the latest from the Costs of War project, housed at Brown University and launched by a group of scholars and experts to document the unacknowledged costs of the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Please see www.costsofwar.org and reach out to us at costsofwar@brown.edu.

Fact Sheet

Both the Taliban and the United States have used violence to gain leverage in their negotiations with one another, and civilians are paying the price.
  • In the period leading up to and during negotiations (from 2017 to the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement), both sides of the conflict ramped up attacks to gain leverage, resulting in escalated civilian deaths.
  • Anti-government elements (the Taliban, ISIS, and other militants) killed an average of 2,071 people between 2017 to 2019, a 5 percent increase from the previously recorded period between 2007 and 2016.
  • The United States, its allies, and the Afghan government (which the U.N. calls pro-Government forces), killed 1,134 civilians between 2017 to 2019, a nearly 95 percent increase.
In particular, air strikes in Afghanistan by the United States and allies have killed a dramatically higher number of civilians.
  • The number of airstrikes and the total number of weapons released from the air increased significantly in the period leading up to the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement. As a result, the U.S. and its allies dropped more weapons from the air in 2018 and 2019 than at the height of U.S. presence in Afghanistan in 2011.
  • U.S. Brigadier General Lance R. Bunch said in June 2018, “The entire purpose behind our air campaign is to pressure the Taliban into reconciliation and help them realize that peace talks are their best option.”
  • In 2019, air strikes killed more civilians than in any other year since the beginning of the war
  • This year, amidst intra-Afghan talks, the Afghan Air Force (AAF) has harmed more civilians than at any point in its history.
Relaxing the rules of engagement in Afghanistan was a deliberate choice by the United States that has led to massive civilian harm.
  • In 2017, then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis announced that the United States had relaxed its rules of engagement for airstrikes in Afghanistan. As Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee, the “restrictions that did not allow us to employ the air power fully have been removed.”
  • After the United States dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” on Afghanistan in April 2017, President Trump said, “We have the greatest military in the world, and they’ve done a job as usual. So we have given them total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing. And frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.”
  • The consequences of the relaxed rules of engagement were immediate. U.S.-led international military forces are responsible for the majority of those killed by airstrikes: 1,357 killed by international forces, compared to 461 killed by Afghan government airstrikes from 2015 through 2019.
  • The number of civilians killed by U.S.-led international airstrikes increased about 330 percent from 2016, the last full year of the Obama Administration, to 2019, the most recent year for which there is complete data from the United Nations.

 

Key Figures & Findings

Figure 1. U.S. Central Command Air Strikes and Weapons Releases in Afghanistan, 2011-February 2020

 

* Note that the U.S. Central Command stopped publishing its monthly summaries of air strikes in Afghanistan in March 2020, so there are no figures for airstrikes after February.

Figure 2. UNAMA Report of Number of Civilians Killed in Afghanistan by ProGovernment Air Strikes, 2006- September 2020.

Figure 3. UNAMA Report Number of Civilians Injured in Afghanistan by Aerial Operations, 2009-September 2019

Sample Tweets

  • The number of civilians killed by U.S. and allied airstrikes in Afghanistan has increased by 330 percent during the Trump administration. More details in a new report from @CostsOfWar: [LINK]
  • In the period leading up to and during negotiations with the Taliban in Feb. 2020, the U.S. and its allies intentionally ramped up airstrikes in Afghanistan to gain leverage in the talks. Civilians paid the price. Read more from @CostsOfWar: [LINK]
  • Between 2017-2019, in an attempt to increase leverage in negotiations with the Taliban, U.S. and allied forces’ airstrikes killed 1,134 civilians in Afghanistan. That is 95 percent higher than the number they killed during the 10 years prior. More from @CostsOfWar: [LINK]
  • In 2018, a U.S. military official said: “The entire purpose behind our air campaign is to pressure the Taliban into reconciliation and help them realize that peace talks are their best option.” A new report from @CostsOfWar reveals the high cost that civilians in Afghanistan have paid for this approach: [LINK]
  • In March 2020, the Trump administration stopped releasing information about how many civilians are dying as a result of U.S.-led airstrikes in Afghanistan. Here’s what we know about the dramatic rise in civilian deaths preceding that decision, in a new report from @CostsOfWar: [LINK]
Afghanistan’s Rising Civilian Death Toll Due to Airstrikes, 2017-2020