Joint Statement on the Extended “Troika” on Peaceful Settlement in Afghanistan

The text of the following statement was released by the Governments of the United States of America, the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China, and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan on the occasion of the Extended “Troika” on Peaceful Settlement in Afghanistan.

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On April 30, representatives of the extended “Troika,” comprising the United States, the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China, and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, met in Doha, Qatar to discuss ways to support intra-Afghan negotiations and help the parties reach a negotiated settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.  The extended “Troika” met with representatives of the Islamic Republic negotiating team and of the Taliban, as well as Qatar, who graciously hosted the participants.

In the spirit of the discussions, as well as provisions of joint statements on the outcomes of previous “Troika” meetings and discussions held on March 22, April 25, July 11, and October 25, 2019; June 3 and November 30, 2020; and March 18, 2021; the four states participating in the extended “Troika” have affirmed as follows:

  1. We acknowledge the widespread and sincere demand of the Afghan people for a lasting and just peace and an end to the war.
  2. We reiterate that there is no military solution in Afghanistan and a negotiated political settlement through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process is the only way forward for lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan.
  3. We take note of the April 14 announcement by the United States and NATO that U.S./NATO forces will begin a responsible withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021 that concludes by September 11, 2021. We reiterate that the withdrawal of foreign troops should ensure a steady transition of the situation in Afghanistan. We stress that, during the withdrawal period, the peace process should not be disrupted, no fights or turbulence shall occur in Afghanistan, and the safety of international troops should be ensured.
  4. We expect the Taliban to fulfill its counterterrorism commitments, including preventing terrorist groups and individuals from using Afghan soil to threaten the security of any other country; not hosting these groups and preventing them from recruiting, training, and fundraising. We expect the Afghan government to continue counterterrorism cooperation with the international community.
  5. We reiterate our call on all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan to reduce the level of violence in the country and on the Taliban not to pursue a Spring offensive. We condemn in the strongest terms any attacks deliberately targeting civilians in Afghanistan and call on all parties to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law in all circumstances, including those related to protection of civilians.
  6. We reiterate that diplomatic personnel and property shall be inviolable, and the perpetrators of any attack or threat on foreign diplomatic personnel and properties in Kabul will be held accountable.
  7. We urge the Government of the Islamic Republic and the High Council for National Reconciliation to engage openly with their Taliban counterparts regarding a negotiated settlement. We do not support the establishment in Afghanistan of any government imposed by force, consistent with the Joint Statement of the March 18 Expanded Troika.
  8. We support a review of the status of designations of Taliban individuals and entities on the UN 1988 sanctions, as stated in the UNSC resolution 2513 (2020). Practical measures to reduce violence and sustained efforts to advance intra-Afghan negotiations by the Taliban will positively affect this review process.
  9. We note the preparations by Turkey to host a conference of senior leaders of both Afghan parties in order to accelerate the intra-Afghan negotiations, and we also welcome the United Nations and Qatar’s roles as co-conveners of this dialogue. We call upon the negotiating parties to make progress toward an inclusive political settlement and a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire.
  10. We appreciate the long-standing support of the State of Qatar to facilitate the peace process, and we support the continuation of discussions between the parties’ negotiating teams in Doha.
  11. We welcome an expanded role for the United Nations in contributing to the Afghan peace and reconciliation process, including by leveraging its considerable experience and expertise in supporting other peace processes.
  12. We strongly advocate a durable and just political resolution that will result in the formation of an independent, sovereign, unified, peaceful, democratic, neutral and self-sufficient Afghanistan, free of terrorism and an illicit drug industry, which contributes to a safe environment for the voluntary, expeditious and sustainable return of Afghan refugees through a well-resourced plan; stability; and global security.
  13. We call on all Afghans including the Government of the Islamic Republic and the Taliban to ensure that terrorist groups and individuals do not use Afghan soil to threaten the security of any other country.
  14. We reaffirm that any peace agreement must include protections for the rights of all Afghans, including women, men, children, victims of war, and minorities, and should respond to the strong desire of all Afghans for economic, social and political development including the rule of law.

End text.

Joint Statement on the Extended “Troika” on Peaceful Settlement in Afghanistan
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Document: The U.S. proposal for peace in Afghanistan

The U.S. proposal for peace in Afghanistan

Updated Mar 10, 2021 at 2:39 PM

The Washington Post

This leaked document dated Feb. 28 outlines the Biden administration’s proposal for a political settlement that could end the fighting in Afghanistan. Two senior Afghan officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on a sensitive policy, proposal verified its authenticity. Read the story.

Document: The U.S. proposal for peace in Afghanistan
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Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction

Lessons Learned Program

February 2021


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Afghan women and girls have made substantial gains over the past nearly two decades—especially in access to health care and education, and greater presence in public life. Yet Afghanistan remains one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman—with high maternal mortality ratios, endemic gender-based violence, and still-limited access to education and health care.

U.S. efforts since 2002 to support women, girls, and gender equality in Afghanistan have yielded mixed results. There is broad demand among Afghans for health and education services, and U.S. agencies have responded with well-designed and effective programs. Yet SIGAR’s examination of 24 U.S. gender-related programs also revealed shortcomings. Some programs were designed based on assumptions that proved to be ill-suited to the Afghan context and the challenges that women and girls faced.

This report, the ninth Lessons Learned Program report to be issued by SIGAR, seeks to answer how the United States can best continue to support Afghan women and girls, preserving and expanding on the gains they have made. Woven throughout the report are “Afghan Voices” – insights from a body of 65 interviews conducted with Afghans in 2020, commissioned by SIGAR. Many interviewees voiced praise for U.S. efforts to expand gender equality, but they also cited insecurity, restrictive social norms, and harassment as key constraints to women’s mobility and work.


The story of women in Afghanistan is more complex than the simplistic portrait often painted by Western media: passive victims forced to wear burqas. To effectively support Afghan women and girls and advance gender equality, donors must understand the diverse experiences of Afghan women and girls, in the context of the culture and history that shape gender roles and relations in the country. Afghanistan remains a largely agrarian and impoverished country whose traditional, patriarchal society has historically accorded women subordinate status. Reform efforts date back to the late 19th century, and have met greatest resistance in rural areas. Since 2001, Afghanistan’s gender norms have been buffeted by many viable drivers of change, including economic growth, exposure to new ideas through a boom in media and mobile phone use, the presence of foreigners, as well as legal, programmatic, and activist efforts to push for change.

Gender equality means . . . expanding freedoms and improving overall quality of life so that equality is achieved without sacrificing gains for males or females.

United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy

Key Findings

  • Afghanistan’s restrictive social and cultural norms toward women—who symbolize honor of the family and the nation—predate and transcend the Taliban. The country also remains largely agrarian and has not undergone the development and urbanization that have historically led to greater gender equality in many other countries.

The difference in challenges between women in urban areas and women in rural areas are as long as the gap between the earth and sky. In urban areas, women . . . know about their rights. However, in rural areas, women work very hard, they carry water on their heads, they harvest the wheat, they take care of livestock and do all the physical tasks. They have less value in their homes, they have no rights in decision-making.

Male member of the provincial council, Bamyan Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 17, 2020

Islam doesn’t prevent women from studying and working, but sometimes the poor culture and tradition are some of the biggest challenges in Afghanistan. . . . People still prefer the patriarchy.

Male member of a civil society organization, Bamyan Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 12, 2020

In rural areas, when women wear good clothes and go to school, people laugh at them and term them as foreigners. But . . . in urban areas, people value education and that’s why they value and respect educated women.

Female member of the provincial council, Khost Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 10, 2020

The War’s Impact on Women

Improvements in the lives of Afghan women and girls have occurred alongside, and in many cases in spite of, the misery wrought by the last two decades of war. Violence continues to be one of the biggest challenges facing Afghan women, both directly and indirectly. In a country with one of the highest maternal mortality ratios in the world, insecurity has made routine medical care difficult or impossible to get. The same insecurity has made it impossible for large numbers of Afghan children—especially girls—to attend school. High civilian casualties drive a strong desire among ordinary Afghans—especially women—for an end to the conflict.

Source: SIGAR Analysis of UNAMA civilian casualty data. UNAMA, “Afghanistan: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Annual Report 2018,” February 2019, pp. 11–12; UNAMA, “Afghanistan: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict 2019,” February 2020, pp. 5, 9.

Note: According to UNAMA, reports using a consistent methodology have been maintained since 2009.

While civilian casualties have declined modestly since hitting a peak in 2016, and declined more in the first half of 2020, overall they are still nearly double what they were in 2009. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), in 2019, 12 percent of civilian casualties were women, and children represented 30 percent.

Security is the biggest challenge women face in our community because due to insecurity women cannot move around, or work outside of their homes.

Female resident, Jawjan Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 10, 2020

Both sides are dumb; they don’t know with their war what problems they create for people, and poor people are involved for nothing.

Female resident, Badakhshan Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 10, 2020

U.S. Strategy and Policy

Since 2001, the Congress and three administrations have brought significant political attention to bear on Afghan women’s status and rights—including the Bush administration’s rhetoric suggesting that the Taliban’s oppression of women was one justification for U.S. military action against the Taliban. This attention, a reflection of both genuine concern and U.S. political agendas, has influenced U.S. assistance to support Afghan women and girls. Moreover, the success or failure of efforts to advance and protect women’s rights has become an important measure by which policymakers judge the reconstruction effort. This chapter assesses how the United States planned to advance the status and rights of Afghan women and girls, and how this strategy evolved over time.

Although advancing women’s status and rights was not a reason for the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, improving the lives of Afghan women and girls was one important goal of the U.S. reconstruction effort.

By their [the U.S.] presence, we dare to get out of the house and work. If they are not here, we don’t know what will happen to women.

Female member of the Afghan Parliament, Nangarhar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 1, 2020

I believe if the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, it will be better for people as a whole, as the only reason for war is the presence of the U.S. in Afghanistan. They are the reason people keep fighting and the reason men are always suspicious and worried about women. I also believe only we can solve our problems ourselves; we can’t ask the U.S. to solve the issues of Afghans.

Female participant of a USAID-funded program, Kandahar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 16, 2020

There is no doubt that [the U.S. civilian presence has] carried out many development projects that had positive effects on Afghan men and women. But those effects and benefits were not enjoyed by everyone due to the corruption of our own Afghans on those projects.

Male member of the provincial council, Uruzgan Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 16, 2020

Overview of U.S. Programming and Mainstreaming Efforts

This chapter offers an overview of the Department of State (State), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and Department of Defense (DOD) programming intended to improve the lives of Afghan women and girls from 2002 to 2020, as well as an assessment of USAID’s and State’s gender mainstreaming approach. In pursuit of greater gender equality in Afghanistan, the U.S. and Afghan governments adopted an approach known as gender mainstreaming, in which the design and implementation of development programs are required to be sensitive to gender norms and disparities. In theory, mainstreaming encourages donors to evaluate the potential effects of any development policy or program to make sure that those efforts do not inadvertently exacerbate existing inequalities. In practice, short rotations of staff and limited expertise lessened the impact that gender mainstreaming might have had.

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State and USAID have not consistently tracked or quantified the amount of money disbursed for projects which directly or indirectly support Afghan women, girls, or gender equality goals. Therefore, the full extent of U.S. programming to support Afghan women and girls is not quantifiable.

Health Care

Senior U.S. government leaders, practitioners, and researchers alike frequently cite improvements in women’s access to health care as one of the most significant accomplishments of post-2001 efforts to improve the lives of Afghan women and girls. The life expectancy of Afghan women has risen from 58 in 2002 to 66 in 2018. Maternal health in particular has been a primary focus of the United States and international donors. This chapter provides an overview of post-2001 gains in women’s health, as well as a summary of barriers that continue to impede progress. The chapter then more closely examines four programs representative of U.S. efforts to improve maternal health.

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There are evident gains in a number of indicators related to maternal health:

    • Prenatal care coverage rose from 16 percent of pregnant women in 2002 to 61 percent in 2015.
    • Postnatal care coverage increased from an average of 28 percent between 2005 and 2010 to 40 percent in 2015.
    • The number of trained midwives rose from 467 in 2002 to roughly 4,000 in 2018.
    • The number of health facilities staffed with at least one female health worker rose from 25 percent in 2002 to 92 percent in 2017.

They want their girls to visit a female doctor instead of male doctors, but when they fall sick they do not have any female doctor to treat them.

Female resident, Kandahar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 16, 2020

If [donors] cannot do anything else, at least they can help with maternity care for women.

Female resident, Kabul Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 25, 2020

We can say that they [health centers] exist, but there are no services, and still there are maternal deaths of mothers and babies.

Male resident, Farah Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 12, 2020


The Afghan government and its international partners have made significant progress in getting more children, especially more girls, into school. Over the last two decades, there have been increases in the number of schools, the number of girls in attendance, the number of female teachers, and literacy rates for female youth. Yet serious obstacles remain, and they are often worse in rural areas. These include traditional gender norms which do not encourage girls’ education past primary school, poor school infrastructure, a lack of female teachers, and insecurity—all of which keep large numbers of girls from attending school. Community-based education, an alternative learning program based on the idea of bringing teachers to students instead of bringing students to a school building, is a promising alternative that has opened up opportunities for girls’ education.

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School Enrollment by Gender

Data Table

Key Findings

  • There were few, if any, girls in school or female teachers under the Taliban regime. Today, as many as 3.5 million girls (out of about 9 million students) are enrolled in school, though this number is likely a high estimate. As of 2018, approximately 70,000 women were in teaching jobs, representing roughly one-third of the nation’s teachers.

If . . . more families allow their girls to go to school, then more women will have greater awareness of their rights and more motivation to do things that are not just in the household, like being a wife and mother.

Female participant of USAID-funded program, Kandahar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 16, 2020

There are some bright-minded men in Afghanistan who want to see women educated, but on the other hand a majority of men are influenced by the propaganda of others.

Female participant of USAID-funded program, Kunar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 16, 2020

If the Taliban comes into power, I see no difference between urban and rural women; we will both have the same challenges.

Female member of the provincial council, Kunduz Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 19, 2020

Political Participation

Women’s participation in the parliament and civil society has significantly increased since 2001. With support from the international donors, Afghan women have pushed for and won seats in the parliament. They have also consistently voted in significant numbers in national elections and have aggressively advocated for women’s protection individually or as part of civil society organizations and coalitions. However, women politicians and civil society leaders continue to have limited influence on policy and face disproportionate intimidation and violence on a daily basis.

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Key Findings

  • Women’s participation in the Afghan Parliament and provincial and district councils has significantly increased since 2001, with 27 percent of parliamentary seats and 25 percent of provincial and district council seats reserved for women. Women comprise almost 50 percent of elected community development council members.

In democratic systems, the contribution of women is necessary and important, especially on behalf of those areas where there are many vulnerable women. The female members of parliament can make vulnerable women bold enough to make an effort towards their development and improvement of their lives.

Male member of the Afghan Parliament, Kunar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 3, 2020

When we have meetings and both men and women raise their hands and show their cards, the respect that is given to men is not given to women. The time which is given to men is not given to women. When a woman speaks, she is not allowed to speak more than three minutes, but a man is allowed to speak more than 15 minutes.

Female member of the Afghan Parliament, Nangarhar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 1, 2020

Access to Justice

Though the Afghan government has passed important laws designed to increase women’s access to justice and combat gender-based violence, a complex web of political, institutional, cultural, and legal barriers continues to stymie progress. Yet increases in women’s employment throughout the justice sector since 2001 shows that women are making inroads into a system historically dominated by men. These gains, limited as they are, reflect what is possible and serve as reminders of the difficult work that remains.

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Key Findings

  • On paper, Afghanistan’s legal framework offers women and girls many protections. In reality, enforcement of these laws has been minimal.

Men are causing such violence because they do not have awareness, so there has to be awareness programs for such men, especially in rural areas to become aware of women’s rights.

Female resident, Kunar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 13, 2020

Men do not let women . . . defend their rights. Women are not allowed to have opinions in the household and when they do, they have trouble with their husbands and sometimes their other family members.

Female resident, Kunar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 13, 2020

Economic Participation

Women have made modest gains in economic participation, especially in owning and running microbusinesses and obtaining secure jobs in urban areas. But gender disparity has remained one of the most persistent features of the Afghan labor force. National household surveys and in-depth analyses of women’s economic participation have all underscored the disadvantages Afghan women face in the labor force.

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Women have made modest gains in economic participation, especially in obtaining secure jobs in urban areas and in owning and running small businesses. Women’s share of secure jobs in urban areas increased from 27 percent to 42 percent between 2007 and 2017. However, women overall continue to be less secure in their jobs than men, work fewer hours, and earn less income.

If a woman wants to work, first she will face challenges and disagreement at home. When she convinces her family members after arguing with them for several days, then she will have to face opposition from the community’s members, religious leaders, and local elders. There are always going to be people in the community who don’t think working or being outside of the house is a good thing for women. This is a man’s world, and we have to fight to be in it.

Female participant of a USAID-funded program, Kunar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 13, 2020

When men go to work, no one harasses them or says bad words to them. On the other hand . . . when a girl goes to school, people call her bad names. Men can get access to everywhere at any time but women cannot do whatever they want, like going to the doctor.

Male resident, Kandahar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 1, 2020

Women’s Participation in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces

The meaningful inclusion of women in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) is a practical necessity in Afghanistan. Because Afghan culture and tradition preclude the free interaction of men and women, male soldiers and police are unable to effectively interact with nearly half of the population—including female suspects, women at airports or national borders, and female victims of domestic violence. A lack of female police officers and soldiers hamstrings key security objectives, including combating the high rates of sexual abuse and domestic violence throughout the country. Yet women serving in the security forces often face a daunting array of problems: social stigma, discrimination from male colleagues, resistance from the communities where they work, and harassment and abuse from their male colleagues.

  • Initial Afghan goals for the recruitment and retention of women in the ANDSF, which U.S. efforts sought to help the Afghan government achieve, were highly unrealistic. These targets have been adjusted over the years to provide more realistic goals, based on recruitment trends and capacity.

If you want to help and increase women’s participation in the military or police . . . you have to offer incentives, build trust, and assure their families of their safety and security first.

Mina Sherzoy, former director of Promote’s Women in Government program

Future Threats and Opportunities

Afghan women and girls have made important gains in some sectors since 2001 and limited progress in others. Today, facing the withdrawal of international forces and the prospect of a peace agreement that would bring the Taliban closer to power, Afghan women have reason to question whether these hard-won achievements will be protected. This chapter discusses current political, security, and economic challenges that threaten to undermine or undo women’s gains of the past 19 years—including peace negotiations, the drawdown of U.S. troops, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also explores women’s participation in peace negotiations, opportunities for preserving and building on post-2001 gains, as well as Taliban practices toward women today, and what these indicate about how the Taliban might govern if they are integrated into the Afghan government.

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  • Foreign troop reductions, reduced donor funding, ongoing Afghan peace negotiations, the possibility of a future Afghan government that includes the Taliban, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the worst-case scenario of state collapse raise questions about whether the fragile gains made by women and girls since 2001 will be preserved and expanded.

We are worried because whatever happens, it is behind closed doors . . . [we] don’t know if they can defend women’s rights or not.

Female member of the Afghan government, Nangarhar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, September 1, 2020

I hope that [the Taliban has] changed because they are living luxurious lives in Qatar and have enrolled their own women in schools there as well. So they will want the same for Afghan women.

Male member of the community development council, Nangarhar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 12, 2020

Every group has good and bad among them, and the Taliban is the same. We are afraid of both sides.

Female member of provincial council, Balkh Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 18, 2020

“[The Taliban] are collecting taxes for electricity, transportation, farmers, and customs. Day [by] day, they become more powerful.

Female member of the provincial council, Kunduz Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 19, 2020

For women, [the COVID-19 pandemic] brought many negative changes because all people sat at their homes due to closure of offices and businesses. This paved the way for domestic violence against women.

Female participant of a USAID-funded program, Kunar Province, SIGAR-commissioned interview, August 13, 20201 Afghan women and girls have achieved significant gains since 2001:

    • Health: The maternal mortality ratio—the number of women who die due to birth- or pregnancy-related complications—has declined, with estimates of the decline ranging from 19 percent to 50 percent. This reflects a number of healthcare improvements. Between 2002 and 2015, the percentage of pregnant women receiving prenatal care by skilled health personnel rose from 16 percent to 61 percent; between 2002 and 2018, the number of trained midwives grew from an estimated 467 to 4,000, and the share of births attended by skilled health personnel went from 14 percent to nearly 60 percent. Between 2002 and 2017, the proportion of health facilities staffed with at least one female health worker rose from 25 percent to 92 percent. (A caveat is that the methodologies used to generate maternal mortality data have varied over time, and the reliability of some data has been questioned. Thus, while a decline in maternal deaths has likely occurred, a precise measurement of the reduction remains elusive.)
    • Education: As many as 3.5 million girls (roughly 40 percent of about 9 million students overall) are enrolled in school, though the number of girls actually attending school is almost certainly lower. Still, even a low estimate reflects a marked improvement over the few, if any, girls who attended public school under the Taliban. By 2018, there were approximately 70,000 women in teaching jobs, representing about one-third of the country’s teachers. There has been an expansion of community-based education, helping to close the enrollment gap between girls and boys. Literacy rates among girls have risen from 20 percent in 2005 to 39 percent in 2017. Overall support among the Afghan population for women’s and girls’ access to education has remained high since at least 2006.
    • Political participation: Unprecedented numbers of women now hold public office. Thanks to a constitutional amendment strongly supported by the United States and other donors, 27 percent of all parliament seats are reserved for women. By law, 25 percent of seats in provincial and district councils are now reserved for women. Nearly half of the 9,708 elected community development council members across the country are women. Women serve as ministers, deputy ministers, and ambassadors, and comprise about 28 percent of employees in civil society organizations. These figures represent the efforts of thousands of women, from the village to the national level. Women’s presence in the media also increased significantly since 2001.
    • Access to justice: Afghanistan has a legal framework for advancing access to justice for women and girls, including constitutional protections for equal rights for men and women, and the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law, promulgated by presidential decree in 2009. The number of women serving in the police rose from 180 in 2005 to 3,650 in 2019. Specialized Family Response Units enable more women to file complaints with the police. From 2007 to 2018, the proportion of judges who are women grew from 5 percent to 13 percent (from 73 to 261 women).
    • Economic participation: There are more women-run businesses and more women employed in urban areas than there were 20 years ago. Women’s share of secure jobs in urban areas increased from 27 percent to 42 percent between 2007 and 2017—one of the few labor force indicators where women had greater gains than men. From 2007 to 2019, the share of women in civil service jobs, excluding the army and police, rose from 18 percent to 25 percent. Women held 15 percent of government decision-making positions in 2018, up from 10 percent in 2013.
  1. 2 The positive story of gains across these sectors is tempered by the reality that significant barriers—including restrictive sociocultural norms and insecurity— continue to impede progress for Afghan women and girls.
  2. 3 Although advancing women’s status and rights was not a reason for the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, improving the lives of Afghan women and girls was one important goal of the U.S. reconstruction effort.
  3. 4 The high-level U.S. political focus on gender issues in Afghanistan translated into congressional and executive branch agency support for significant funding for efforts targeting women and girls. At the same time, that political focus may also have reduced the scrutiny accorded to the design of some gender programs.
  4. 5 The United States has disbursed at least $787.4 million for programs specifically and primarily to support Afghan women and girls from 2002 to 2020, but the total amount of U.S. investments to improve the lives of women and girls is not quantifiable because hundreds of other programs and projects included an unquantifiable gender component.
  5. 6 USAID was unable to field the resources and expertise needed to effectively integrate gender-related objectives across programming in Afghanistan.
  6. 7 Community-based education has proven effective as a reliable, culturally accepted model for delivering primary education in areas where the formal education system does not operate, and especially in closing the enrollment and achievement gap between girls and boys.
  7. 8 The U.S. government’s funding to civil society organizations contributed to an increase in the number of women advocates and organizations focusing on women’s rights. However, many of these organizations are unsustainable without continued assistance.
  8. 9 The United States has provided significant support to recruitment and retention targets set by the Afghan government for women’s participation in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, but these targets have been highly unrealistic and unachievable. Although there has been a modest increase in the number of women police officers, women in all parts of the security forces face threats to their personal safety and pervasive harassment and discrimination.
  9. 10 Afghan women have assumed leadership roles at the national, provincial, district, and community levels. At the same time, they face a troika of threats: continued or intensified violence, the risk of Afghan peace negotiations leading to erosions of women’s rights, and a dire economic and humanitarian situation exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  10. 11 The kind of life Afghan women will face under any government in which the Taliban exert an influence will be a product of the Taliban’s ability—or inability—to negotiate their differences with the Afghan government and local communities, and the varying beliefs and practices within their own ranks.
  11. 12 The effort to promote women’s rights may be hampered by a growing narrative in Afghanistan that the country can either have women’s rights at the cost of peace, or peace at the cost of women’s rights.

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  1. Lesson 1 U.S. and international diplomatic pressure can be instrumental to advancing women’s legal rights and participation in public life—in politics, government, media, and civil society.
  2. Lesson 2 It is critical that U.S. officials working on or in Afghanistan develop a more nuanced understanding of gender roles and relations in the Afghan cultural context—and work to ensure that U.S. policies and programs are responsive to this context. U.S. agencies also need to assess how to support women and girls without provoking backlash that might endanger them or stall progress.
  3. Lesson 3 Educating Afghan men and boys about gender equality issues and working with them as partners and advocates are critical to advancing women’s status and rights in Afghanistan.
  4. Lesson 4 Key factors in improving the access of Afghan women and girls to health care and education were existing expertise and capacity within aid organizations, popular demand for these services, consistent funding, and rigorous impact evaluations of programs.
  5. Lesson 5 It is crucial that more women assume leadership positions in a wider range of Afghan government ministries, including at the cabinet level.
  6. Lesson 6 U.S. efforts to improve the lives of women and girls will continue to be constrained by significant barriers, especially insecurity and harmful sociocultural norms.
  7. Lesson 7 A further reduction in foreign aid and subsequent economic contraction could have disproportionate impact on women, especially urban women who benefited from economic expansion and donors’ support in the last two decades.
  8. Lesson 8 The United States can continue to advance gender equality in Afghanistan by advocating, along with other international partners, that women participate in the Afghan peace negotiations and that the negotiations preserve critical post-2001 gains for women and girls.

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Recommendations for the Congress

The Congress may wish to consider:

  1. 1 Ensuring that current funding levels for improving Afghan women’s and girls’ access to health care and education are preserved because these programs have demonstrated the most measurable success, there remains significant need, and the Afghan population widely supports these efforts.
  2. 2 Conditioning U.S. assistance to any future Afghan government on that government’s demonstrated commitment to protect the rights of women and girls.
  3. 3 Ensuring that the Secretary of State submits the strategy as called for in section 7044(a) of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, including the component to promote the welfare and rights of Afghan women and girls. As the Congress considers fiscal year 2022 foreign assistance levels for Afghanistan, it may wish to take into account what resources may be needed to implement the women’s rights component of that strategy.
  4. 4 Reassessing the requirement for the Department of Defense to spend not less than $10 million to $20 million annually on the recruitment and retention of women in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), and rather, prioritizing the appropriation of funds to improve working conditions and protections for women in the ANDSF.
  5. 5 Increasingly raising women’s rights and gender equality issues in engagements related to Afghanistan—during visits to the country and hearings on Afghanistan, and with international partners.

Recommendations for Executive Branch Agencies

  1. 6 The Secretary of State should continue to work with our Afghan and other international partners to support women’s rights protections in any agreement emerging from Afghan peace negotiations.
  2. 7 The Secretary of State, the USAID Administrator, and the Secretary of Defense should ensure that gender-related programs and initiatives in Afghanistan include activities that educate and engage Afghan men and boys to challenge stereotypes and reduce hostility to women’s rights and their participation in public life.
  3. 8 The Secretary of State, the USAID Administrator, and the Secretary of Defense should ensure that monitoring and evaluation systems are in place for programs and initiatives to support Afghan women and girls so that outcomes are assessed and agencies better understand the impact of programming.
  4. 9 The Secretary of State should continue to support protective shelters for women and girls fleeing abuse, and increase mentorship and support to the Afghan National Police’s Family Response Units.
  5. 10 The USAID Administrator should develop and retain staff with expertise in gender mainstreaming, to better integrate gender into the agency’s programming.
  6. 11 The USAID Administrator should prioritize expanding midwifery education programs, including community midwifery schools, in rural areas where there is a shortage of female health care providers and access to maternal care is restricted.
  7. 12 The USAID Administrator should support the Ministry of Education in training more female teachers, providing for more gender-appropriate facilities, and adequately funding and monitoring community-based education in order to meet the demand for girls’ education, especially in rural areas.
  8. 13 In the absence of sufficient Ministry of Education support for the community-based education system, the USAID Administrator should continue to prioritize the agency’s community-based education programming across the country.
  9. 14 The USAID Administrator should ensure that female members of community development councils in Afghanistan—particularly those in rural areas—are consulted on the design and implementation of USAID programs, in order for programs to better address the concerns and priorities of women in rural communities.
  10. 15 The USAID Administrator should provide financial support to Afghan grassroots civil society organizations that advocate for women’s rights, particularly those that operate in rural areas.
  11. 16 The USAID Administrator should ensure that job skills trainings for Afghan women are designed to be practical and responsive to market needs, and that the agency assesses the degree to which trainings expand participants’ knowledge and skills.
  12. 17 The Secretary of Defense should continue to focus DOD efforts on improving the working conditions and protections for women serving in the ANDSF, rather than focusing solely on increasing recruitment numbers.

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Elections: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan

Today, SIGAR released its eighth lessons learned report, Elections: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan. This report identifies lessons to inform U.S. policies and actions regarding electoral support. The report is embargoed until February 1, 2021 at 11:59PM Eastern (midnight Monday into Tuesday).

Key Points:

— Since 2001, the international community has spent at least $1.2 billion—including at least $620 million contributed by the U.S. government—supporting Afghanistan’s electoral process, including seven separate elections. The return on the U.S. government’s investment in supporting Afghan elections has been poor.

— Afghan electoral stakeholders do not appear closer to credibly preparing for, administering, and resolving disputes for elections than they were in 2004. Afghanistan’s electoral institutions remain weak, which undermines the confidence of the Afghan public in its government.

— Electoral security is inextricably tied to overall security, both of which are steadily deteriorating. Since 2004, the number of planned and unexpected polling center closures on election day due to insecurity has steadily increased; effective Taliban attacks continue to increase; insurgent activity is closely correlated with lower registration and turnout rates; and fear for personal safety and fear while voting are at record highs. On the current course, insecurity alone will increasingly undermine the legitimacy of Afghan elections. 

— Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission has always suffered and continues to suffer from weak leadership, unqualified staff, minimal accountability for fraud and malpractice, and a structure poorly suited to decision making. Post-election staff purges, inexperienced leadership, corrupt hiring practices, inadequate training, and a shortage of qualified job candidates have contributed to a poorly trained and poorly motivated workforce. The capacity and integrity of election officials are critical components of an election’s credibility and merit significant donor attention. 

— Afghanistan’s national voter registry and the voter registration process are exceptionally vulnerable to manipulation and mismanagement that undermine the voter registry’s purpose of ensuring credible elections. Problems with the registry’s implementation hindered its ability to mitigate fraud. The number of registered voters in Afghanistan is improbably high, given the population size and low turnout shortly after registering, which likely indicates registration fraud. Malpractice and lack of transparency also undermine the credibility of the voter registry. 

— Afghan elections are regularly subject to fraud and manipulation through bribes, threats, or both. It is difficult to detect and prove fraud, and even harder to reduce it. Anti-fraud measures are often co-opted to perpetrate more fraud, and even successful fraud mitigation can end up suppressing legitimate votes, sometimes in ways that favor one group over another. Fraud is an ever-evolving target that cannot be eliminated, only reduced. 

— Afghanistan’s electoral dispute resolution process consistently suffers from political manipulation, incompetence, and a lack of transparency. The lack of clarity about the roles of Afghanistan’s two election commissions (the IEC and ECC), and open conflict between them, has repeatedly led to disputes that can undermine confidence in both the electoral dispute resolution process and the credibility of the election overall. Without transparency, measures to reduce fraud will be insufficient. 

— Technology has not improved the credibility of Afghan elections, but has merely added another means of contesting them. International best practices have shown that electoral technologies are most likely to succeed when their adoption is slow, transparent, and consultative—the opposite of how events unfolded in Afghanistan’s 2018 and 2019 elections. The use of election technology can exacerbate rather than reduce fraud or malpractice, especially if it is introduced hastily and without forethought and planning. 

— In their efforts to identify electoral fraud and malpractice, election observation organizations face significant obstacles, particularly insecurity, inadequate funding and training, and insufficient oversight to address corruption among their own observers. Election observers can increase the transparency and credibility of Afghan elections by publicizing electoral fraud and malpractice. In the absence of international observers or an independent judiciary, domestic observers are one of the few checks on election fraud in Afghanistan. 

— Donors make their electoral assistance less effective by being too cautious in their engagement with Afghan counterparts, by overemphasizing technical issues, and by focusing assistance around election day rather than throughout Afghanistan’s five-year electoral cycle. As it is currently structured, donor support is focused on achieving the short-term and important goal of simply ensuring that elections are held. However, if the long-term goal is ensuring Afghanistan has a sustainable democratic process, U.S. and international partners may want to focus more attention on building the capacity of Afghanistan’s electoral institutions. Election cycles are continuous processes that require constant donor engagement and support. 

To read the full report, click here:

To read an interactive version of the report, click here:

Elections: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan
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Afghanistan’s Rising Civilian Death Toll Due to Airstrikes, 2017-2020

Fact Sheet & Sample Social Media

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

December 7, 2020


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.

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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 and reach out to us at

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
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Open Letter by Afghan Women to the Taliban

We, women, have borne the brunt of the four decades of conflict. As wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters we have suffered terribly.

August 13, 2020

For the past two years, Afghan women have been observing the ongoing negotiation process in Afghanistan carefully and, like millions of our fellow citizens, we deeply hope that the process can bring the nearly 40 years of conflict in our beloved Afghanistan to an end. We, women, have borne the brunt of the four decades of conflict. As wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters we have suffered terribly, we have been subjected to the brutality and violence of war; we have borne witness to the endless suffering of our families and our people. We, perhaps more than anyone, seek an end to this senseless war. Yet, we, like the vast majority of Afghan women and men, worry that the price of peace may be too heavy if we lose the vitality of more than half of our population and the essential gains achieved in the last two decades.

Your willingness to enter peace talks has given us hope but your public statements and behavior on the ground have continued to trouble us. We have heard from some in your leadership that you have changed and recognize that Afghanistan is not the same country that you reigned over in 1996-2001, and recognize women’s rights to education and work according to “Shari’a and Afghan traditions”. At the same time, you have resisted explaining your interpretations of Shari’a and the Afghan traditions of which you speak. Respectfully, your interpretation is one of many. There are many customary practices that are in clear contradictions to Islamic values. Some of the more egregious are prohibiting and limiting girls’ education, women’s economic freedom, right to inheritance, the treatment of women and girls as commodities, resolving disputes by giving little girls and women as Baad, preventing and limiting women’s employment and their participation in public life, to name just a few.

In Afghanistan, women continue to be the largest illiterate. In addition, 80% of our girls are forced into marriage at a very young age, a tradition more common in areas under your influence. While in other Muslim nations women are thriving as successful leaders, politicians and policy makers, actively improving the lives of their fellow citizens, in Afghanistan we are still fighting to be recongized and respected as equal and capable citizens. Muslim women across the Muslim world – in Tunisia, Morocco, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Jordan, Turkey, Bangladesh, Senegal, Mauritius, even Pakistan and in many others are enjoying freedom of movement, access to education, employment and access to services, but we are still fighting for our survival. Despite the significant challenges and continued threat to our lives, we will pursue our desire to serve our country. Afghanistan belongs to all of us, women and men. We do not view the roles differently when it comes to the protection and development of our beloved Afghanistan. In doing so, you have often addressed our push to serve our country and our fellow citizens as merely western influence.

You have also dismissed those of us who have been on the frontlines of working on women’s and human rights, accusing us of bringing in western values . We, as women 1 represent every part of Afghanistan, rural and urban. We represent the full diversity of Afghanistan including geographical, sectarian and ethnic. The rights that we espouse and work towards are fundamental human rights enshrined in the holy religion of Islam and other faiths practiced in Afghanistan. As more than half of the population, we have put our lives and those of our families on the line to defend and protect the most vulnerable and those abused. It is the obligation of every citizen, regardless of their gender or ethnicity, to engage in improving their lives and the lives of their families, friends and fellow citizens. You have often projected our obligation to our country and people as a western influence and propaganda but there is nothing western in Afghan women demanding respect for their dignity and protection of their equal rights. As proud and responsible citizens, we do not view putting our skills to work to improve our country’s future towards prosperity as western. In the last two decades, we have played a vital role in rebuilding our destroyed country. We have done so as scientists, doctors, technologists, entrepreneurs, judges, religious scholars, engineers, lawyers, teachers, university professors, security officials, journalists, artists, and rights activists across the country.

We will not allow our place and contribution towards rebuilding our country to be erased or reversed. More than ever we recognize our capacity to contribute to the wellbeing of our society. We will not allow the potential, talent, the rights and dignity of our daughters and sons to be stripped once again for political gains and posturing.

1 This letter is written by a group of women with incredibly diverse backgrounds. We are a group of nearly 400 women from across the country working for and demanding peace. Among us, we have the current generation of Afghanistan, those in their early 20s who do not remember what it was like to live under your regime and older women who remember very well what it was like to live under your rules. The views expressed in this letter voice aspirations and fears shared by millions from across the country. As we have repeatedly offered, we are prepared to sit down with the Taliban and have a genuine discussion about the needs and challenges of our population and our country. We have done so with members of the Afghan government and believe it is equally important to engage with you. We believe this is important because you are a party to the conflict and to the negotiations. For the last two decades, your leadership and command have been living outside of Afghanistan and you have not been exposed to the flourishing progress in our country.

We believe that by sitting together we may overcome the polarized views that you have expressed about Afghan women and the future of our country.

It is the dream of every responsible Afghan, including your children who live outside Afghanistan, to live in a country in which the role of every Afghan will be vital to rebuilding our country and ensuring that we become a sovereign, independent, sustainable and peaceful country in the region and international community.

For peace and justice,

Our Voice, Our Future

A coalition of Afghan women and individual activists, representing thousands of Afghan women

Open Letter by Afghan Women to the Taliban
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An Open Letter from World Leaders Calling for Afghan Women’s Meaningful Participation in the Peace Process

An Open Letter from World Leaders Calling for Afghan Women’s Meaningful Participation in the Peace Process

We call upon all relevant national, regional and international actors to pursue a peaceful, stable Afghanistan by ensuring women’s full participation in the peace process. After 40 years of conflict, there may finally be an opportunity for peace. The
international community has an obligation to assist with ensuring that the peace forged is durable and this opportunity is not squandered.
As global leaders and foreign policy experts, we have seen clear proof that women’s involvement is key to establishing a lasting and sustainable peace. The substantive involvement of women in peace talks makes agreements more likely to be attained and upheld. We have seen evidence of women’s powerful influence in peace processes in recent times, from Colombia to the Philippines. The direct impact women’s participation has on ensuring stability makes their inclusion an international security issue, which the UN Security Council recognized when it adopted the landmark resolution on Women, Peace and Security (UNSCR 1325) twenty years ago this fall.
In the peace process underway in Afghanistan, the international community should prioritize women’s meaningful inclusion in order to help obtain the long-term security goals we have been working toward for decades. We have already seen enormous progress in Afghanistan since women have begun to be integrated into society as equal citizens. The Taliban banned girls from schooling and today over 3.5 million girls are enrolled. Women went from being virtually erased under Taliban rule to becoming policewomen, teachers, public officials, mayors and entrepreneurs. In 2019, women accounted for 28% of the Afghan parliament – a proportion higher than 67% of countries tracked by the World Bank. They will not surrender these gains. Peace cannot be made on the backs of Afghan women.
Guaranteeing the preservation of equality, democracy, and inclusivity will promote stability and help to protect future generations from the threat of extremism. Afghanistan, the region, and the world would all be safer as a result.
Given the key role of women in ensuring a durable peace, the following measures are necessary:
➢ Women need to be party to the negotiations, not just an issue to be discussed.
➢ Women must be involved throughout every step of the process.
➢ The perspective of women and youth must be reflected in any agreement.
To ensure these goals are met, we call on the international community to do the following:
➢ Persuade negotiators to preserve equal rights for all its citizens as guaranteed by the Afghan constitution.
➢ Condition international aid on the preservation of the rights and liberties currently enjoyed by Afghan citizens, especially women’s rights.
➢ Implement legitimate and established monitoring mechanisms for ensuring the maintenance of rights. Ensure these mechanisms are outlined in the peace agreement and that women are part of the development, implementation and monitoring of such mechanisms.
An oppressive Afghanistan will not be stable, safe or prosperous. In order to honor the sacrifices and investments that have been made over many years, we must prioritize the future role of women in Afghanistan – which starts with their substantive involvement in the peace process.


Karen AbuZayd, Commissioner of the UN Inquiry on Syria and Former Commissioner-General of UNRWA
María Elena Agüero, Secretary-General of the Club de Madrid
Shamshad Akhtar, Former UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP
Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Arab Emirates
Madeleine Albright, Former United States Secretary of State
Amat Al Alim Alsoswa, Yemen’s Former Minister for Human Rights, Former UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Assistant Administrator
Valerie Amos, Former UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator
Mayu Ávila, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of El Salvador
Lloyd Axworthy, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada
Ali Babacan, Former Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey
Jan Peter Balkenende, Former Prime Minister of The Netherlands
Carol Bellamy, Former Executive Director of UNICEF
Mohamed Benaissa, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Morocco
Catherine Bertini, Former Executive Director of the UN World Food Program
Carl Bildt, Former Prime Minister of Sweden
Julie Bishop, Former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Australia
Irina Bokova, Former Director-General of UNESCO
Lakhdar Brahimi, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Algeria and UN Special Envoy for Afghanistan
Gro Harlem Brundtland, Former Prime Minister of Norway
Laura Bush, Former First Lady of the United States
Margaret Chan, Former Director-General of the World Health Organization
Helen Clark, Former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Administrator of UNDP
Joe Clark, Former Prime Minister of Canada
Sean Cleary, Chief Director of the Office of the Administrator General of Namibia
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Former United States Secretary of State
Kathleen Cravero, Former UNDP Assistant Secretary-General for Conflict Prevention and Recovery
Staffan de Mistura, Former Under Secretary-General and UN Special Envoy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria
Isabel de Saint Malo, Former Vice President of Panama
Erik Derycke, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belgium
Rut Diamint, Chief of Cabinet and Advisor to the Argentine Ministry of Defense
Lamberto Dini, Former Prime Minister of Italy
Paula J. Dobriansky, Former United States Under-Secretary of State for Global Affairs
Alexander Downer, Former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Australia
Mikuláš Dzurinda, Former Prime Minister of Slovakia
Jan Eliasson, Former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden
María Fernanda Espinosa, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of National Defence of Ecuador
Christiana Figueres, Former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
Joschka Fischer, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Vice Chancellor of Germany
Louise Fréchette, Former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations
Robert Gates, Former United States Secretary of Defense
Rose Gottemoeller, Former Deputy Secretary-General of NATO
Dalia Grybauskaitė, Former President of Lithuania
Rebeca Grynspan, Ibero-American Secretary-General and Former Vice President of Costa Rica
Geeta Rao Gupta, Former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF
Stephen Hadley, Former United States National Security Advisor
Chuck Hagel, Former United States Secretary of Defense
Lord William Hague, Former Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom
Tarja Halonen, Former President of Finland
Ameerah Haq, Former UN Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Field Support
Stephen J. Harper, Former Prime Minister of Canada
Noeleen Heyzer, Former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations
John Howard, Former Prime Minister of Australia
Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Former President of Estonia
Igor Ivanov, Former Foreign Minister of Russia
Atifete Jahjaga, Former President of Kosovo
Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Medhi Jomaa, Former Prime Minister of Tunisia
Ivo Josipović, Former President of Croatia
Marina Kaljurand, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Estonia
John Kerry, Former United States Secretary of State
Rima Khalaf, Former UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCWA
Ban Ki-moon, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations
Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Former President of Poland
Rachel Kyte, Former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All
Zlatko Lagumdžija, Former Prime Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Tzipi Livni, Former Foreign Minister, Vice Prime Minister, and Minister of Justice of Israel
Jessie Rose Mabutas, Former Assistant President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development
Peter MacKay, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of National Defence of Canada
Susana Malcorra, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Argentina
Purnima Mane, Former UN Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UNFPA
Mara Marinaki, EEAS Principal Adviser on Gender and on the Implementation of UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security
Cindy McCain, Chair of the McCain Institute Board of Trustees
Sir Donald McKinnon, Former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of New Zealand
Monica McWilliams, Former Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and Signatory to the Northern Ireland Good Friday Peace Agreement
David Miliband, Former Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom
Laura Chinchilla Miranda, Former President of Costa Rica
Amr Moussa, Former Secretary-General of the Arab League and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Egypt
Marwan al-Muasher, Former Minister for Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister of Jordan
Roza Otunbayeva, Former President of Kyrgyzstan
Ana Palacio, Former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Spain
Leon Panetta, Former United States Secretary of Defense
George Papandreou, Former Prime Minister of Greece
Colin L. Powell, Former United States Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Former Prime Minister of Denmark and Secretary-General of NATO
Òscar Ribas Reig, Former Prime Minister of Andorra
Condoleezza Rice, Former United States Secretary of State
Malcolm Rifkind, Former Secretary of State for Scotland, Defence Secretary, and Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom
Lord George Robertson, Former NATO Secretary General and UK Defense Secretary
Mary Robinson, Former President of Ireland
Fatiha Serour, UN Deputy Special Representative for Somalia
Karin Sham Poo, Former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF
Natan Sharansky, Former Deputy Prime Minister of Israel and Political Prisoner of the Soviet Union
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Former President of Liberia
Gillian Sorensen, Former UN Assistant Secretary-General for External Relations
Cassam Uteem, Former President of Mauritius
Jozias van Aartsen, Former Mayor of Amsterdam and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands
Hubert Védrine, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of France
Ann Veneman, Former Executive Director of UNICEF
Melanne Verveer, Former United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues
Knut Vollebæk, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway
Alexandr “Sasha” Vondra, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defence of the Czech Republic
Margot Wallström, Former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden
José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Former Prime Minister of Spain
Miomir Žužul, Former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Croatia

An Open Letter from World Leaders Calling for Afghan Women’s Meaningful Participation in the Peace Process
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SIGAR released its forty-eighth Quarterly Report to Congress.

SIGAR’s forty-eighth Quarterly Report to Congress

Key Points:

— Implementation of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, contested presidential election results, tensions between the United States and Iran, prisoner-release discussions, war, and COVID-19 had a major impact this quarter, making it “perhaps the most complex and challenging period in the last two decades” for Afghanistan’s security forces, according to the Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan (CSTC-A).

— Enemy violence levels stayed well above historic norms for most of this quarter, according to Resolute Support (RS). The Taliban conducted no attacks against Coalition forces, but attacked Afghan government forces at several sites in provincial capitals.

— According to DOD’s assessment of the violence level from February 29 – June 1, “The Taliban is calibrating its use of violence to harass and undermine the ANDSF and [the Afghan government], but remain at a level it perceives is within the bounds of the agreement, probably to encourage a U.S. troop withdrawal and set favorable conditions for a post-withdrawal Afghanistan.”

— Afghanistan’s National Security Council said Taliban attacks increased June 14 – 21, with 422 attacks in 32 provinces killing 291 ANDSF personnel and wounding 550 others, making it the “deadliest [week] of the past 19 years.”

— A UN monitoring team concluded this quarter that the Taliban-al-Qaeda relationship remained “close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage,” despite Taliban commitments to break off support for al-Qaeda in the U.S.-Taliban agreement.

— RS reported 59% more civilian casualties in Afghanistan this quarter (April 1 – June 30) compared to last quarter (January 1 – March 30), and an 18% increase compared to the same period last year. The 2,085 civilian casualties this quarter were 776 more than last quarter and 321 more than the same period last year.

— COVID-19 testing remains limited in Afghanistan, but nearly 43% of samples tested positive as of July 15, one of the highest rates in the world, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Afghanistan lacks medical equipment needed to treat COVID-19; its hospitals have only 300 ventilators. JHU research suggests an 18% increase in child mortality and a 14% increase in maternal mortality as indirect consequences of COVID-19’s spread. The International Rescue Committee said Afghanistan faced a “humanitarian disaster.”

— Driven in part by COVID-19, the Afghan government’s sustainable domestic revenues contracted by 23.4%, year-on-year, over the first six months of 2020, according to SIGAR analysis of Afghan government accounting data. In the first six months of 2020, customs duties and taxes dropped 31.6% from the same period last year. According to State, the Afghan government expects tax revenue to contract by $715 million in 2020, 26% shy of the $2.7 billion in revenues that were projected before the emergence of COVID-19.

— About one-third of Afghanistan’s estimated 32.2 million people remain in either a crisis or emergency state of food insecurity and require urgent action, as of May, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification. According to Save the Children, 7.3 million Afghan children will face food shortages due to the pandemic. Prices of essential food items have steadily risen, with reported food-price inflation of 16.7%, while the purchasing power of casual labor has dropped by 13%.

— State downgraded Afghanistan’s human trafficking rating to the lowest level since it first assessed the country in 2002, saying the Afghan government does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. There is an Afghan government policy or pattern of sexual slavery in government compounds (bacha bazi or “boy play”) and the recruitment and use of child soldiers, according to State. The Department added that the Afghan government lacks the resources and political will to hold perpetrators accountable.

— Between November 1, 2019 and April 30, 2020, the number of ANDSF casualties, including those that occurred on local patrols, checkpoint operations, and offensive operations, decreased significantly compared to the same period in 2019, but still remained high, largely due to Taliban attacks at static ANDSF checkpoints, according to DOD. USFOR-A classified all ANDSF casualty information this quarter because the Afghan government classifies it.

— Recent United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reporting indicates that Afghanistan’s 2020 opium-poppy harvest was largely uninterrupted by COVID-19. UNODC estimated 163,000 hectares of opium-poppy were cultivated in Afghanistan in 2019. This is a 38% decline from 2018 (263,000 ha) and a 50% decline from the high point of cultivation in 2017 (328,000 ha). Overall, the opium-poppy cultivation in 2019 was at its lowest point since 2012 (154,000 ha). Neither disease nor drought affected the quality of opium-poppy in 2019 as it had in previous years.

— On July 1, DOD reported that the $1 billion reduction of assistance, announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in March, had not been implemented as of June 2020. On July 17, DOD told SIGAR that the Secretary of Defense has been actively engaged in reviewing recommendations for implementing a reduction in Afghan Special Forces Fund support.

Full Quarterly Report: []

Quarterly Report by Section: []

SIGAR released its forty-eighth Quarterly Report to Congress.
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Afghanistan: State Department 2019 terrorism report

Overview:  The United States partners with Afghanistan in a bilateral CT effort through Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.  The U.S. military, along with 38 other Coalition nations, also supports the ANDSF through the NATO Resolute Support “Train, Advise, and Assist” mission.  In 2019, the Taliban and the affiliated HQN increased terrorist attacks targeting Afghan civilians, government officials, and members of the international community.  Additionally, ISIS-K continued to attack civilians and especially targeted religious minorities.  The enemy-initiated attack trend in 2019 defied its usual seasonal pattern; while in most years, such attacks decrease in cold-weather months, they remained consistently high following the summer fighting season.  ISIS-K, elements of al-Qa’ida, including affiliate AQIS, and terrorist groups targeting Pakistan, such as TTP, continued to use the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region as a safe haven.  Afghanistan is also the only member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS from South and Central Asia.

2019 Terrorist Incidents:  Attacks attributed to terrorist activity continued to increase in 2019.  While the majority of attacks occurred in Kabul, Jalalabad, and other major population centers, incidents also targeted Highway 1 (Afghanistan’s national Ring Road highway).  Militants conducted high-profile attacks through complex assaults involving multiple attackers wearing suicide vests to target ANDSF, Afghan government buildings, foreign governments, and soft civilian targets to include international organizations.  According to Resolute Support Mission reporting, between January 1 and September 30, insurgent and terrorist attacks were responsible for 1,618 civilians killed and an additional 4,958 wounded.  Among the significant terrorist incidents in 2019 were:

  • On May 8, the Taliban attacked USAID-funded, U.S.-based aid organization Counterpart International in Kabul, killing four civilians and a policeman, and wounding 24 others.  All attackers were killed after a six-hour battle with Afghan security forces.
  • On July 1, a Taliban attack against the Afghan National Army Logistic and Armory Directorate involved a VBIED and five gunmen attacking the compound.  The attack killed 40 civilians and wounded more than 100, including men, women, and children, in an adjacent school.
  • On August 17, ISIS-K conducted a suicide bombing that targeted Shi’ite celebrants in a wedding hall in Kabul, killing at least 80 people and injuring more than 140.
  • On September 2, the Taliban detonated a suicide car bomb at a facility in Kabul that housed numerous international organizations, killing 16 people and injuring more than 119.  Those killed included five Nepalis, two Britons, and a Romanian diplomat.
  • On September 5, the Taliban detonated a suicide car bomb in Kabul killing 12 people, including an American paratrooper and a Romanian soldier.  The explosion also injured more than 40.
  • On December 11, the Taliban conducted an attack on a hospital adjoining Bagram Airfield killing two and wounding 80 others, mostly civilians.  No Coalition fatalities were reported.

Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security:  The Afghan Attorney General’s Office investigates and prosecutes violations of the laws prohibiting membership in terrorist or insurgent groups, violent acts committed against the state, hostage taking, murder, and the use of explosives against military forces and state infrastructure.  These laws were codified into one Afghan Penal Code for national security crimes on May 15, 2017, in Official Gazette #1260. These laws include Crimes against the Internal and External Security of the State (1976 and 1987), Combat Against Terrorist Offences (2008), and Firearms, Ammunition, and Explosives (2005).

Specialized police Crisis Response Units located in the Afghan cities of Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif, and Herat continue to thwart and successfully respond to militant attacks.

Afghanistan continued to face significant challenges in protecting its borders, particularly those with Pakistan and Iran.  Under the bilateral Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS), which met for the first time in July 2018, Afghan and Pakistani officials agreed in principle to create a mechanism for communication between security forces on each side of the border.  On June 10 at the APAPPS Review Session in Islamabad, the Afghan and Pakistani deputy foreign ministers met to discuss trade, transit, the peace process, refugees, and closer border security coordination.  Despite this review and discussions between the two governments to utilize APAPPS, progress through this forum remains slow.

Afghanistan continued to process traveler arrivals and departures at major ports of entry using U.S.-provided PISCES border security management system, which currently operates at 13 ports of entry, including the airports of Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, and Mazar-e-Sharif.  The most recent implementation of PISCES was in October at the Gulum Khan border crossing of Khost province.

Countering the Financing of Terrorism:  Afghanistan is a member of the APG.  In line with FATF recommendations, Afghanistan’s FIU, the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Center of Afghanistan (FinTRACA), conducted a money laundering and terrorist-financing risk assessment in 2019.  On May 15, the UN 1267 Sanctions Committee designated ISIS-K as the first ISIS affiliate to be designated by the UN.

Afghan Peace Process:  Throughout 2019, the United States sought to negotiate an agreement with the Taliban that would commit the Taliban to take action against international terrorist groups, including not allowing those groups to recruit, train, or raise funds on Afghan territory, and to not host those groups.  In return for these commitments and for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations that would include the Afghan government, other Afghan leaders, and the Taliban, the United States would agree to a timeline for the conditions-based withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan.  Although the United States suspended talks following Taliban attacks in early September that were inconsistent with multiple rounds of serious negotiations, these talks were restarted in December following a series of goodwill gestures by the Taliban and Afghan government, including the release of one American and one Australian hostage, the release of Taliban-held ANDSF hostages, and the release of Afghan-held Taliban prisoners.

Countering Violent Extremism:  A landmark July 6-8 intra-Afghan dialogue, hosted in Doha, Qatar, and organized by Germany, brought together representatives of the Afghan government, other Afghan leaders, civil society groups (including women’s groups), and the Taliban.  Participating in their personal capacities, the attendees agreed on the conditions necessary to reach a sustainable peace, and a roadmap for achieving peace.

From April 28 to May 3, a Loya Jirga chaired by Mujahedin leader and Islamic scholar Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf included 3,200 religious leaders, politicians, and representatives who met to discuss peace and called for an immediate ceasefire between the government and militants.  The Jirga’s 3,200 delegates were divided into 51 committees that developed 23 recommendations urging a cease in violence between Afghan security forces and militants.  The Taliban condemned the Jirga as unrepresentative of the Afghan people.

International and Regional Cooperation:  Afghanistan is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.  In May, Afghan President Ghani agreed to participate in a trilateral meeting with Pakistan and the United States to discuss not only security but also prospective cooperation on economic growth and regional connectivity.

Afghanistan: State Department 2019 terrorism report
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The families paying the price for the war in Afghanistan

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
Published June 3 2020

The stone compounds in which many Afghans live are a whirl of skinny arms and legs. Children run between the clustered homes of their aunts, their uncles, their parents. Afghanistan has one of the youngest populations in the world – more than 40 percent of people are under 15.

But childhood in Afghanistan is punctuated by war. With alarming frequency, that war is arriving at their homes. The consequences are often terrible.

When air strikes hit family compounds it is children, overwhelmingly, who die. Attacks on targets that appear to be homes are heavily restricted under international law; even if, for example, military officials know that insurgent fighters have used houses for cover to fire upon troops, officers should weigh up the risk to civilians before striking.

There are fears this is not being done in Afghanistan. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism – working with Al Jazeera and Bellingcat – has been tracking air strikes and trying to find the stories behind the statistics.

In a sample of ten air strikes carried out by the US military and their Afghan allies on family compounds in the past two years, 115 people were killed, more than 70 of them children. The strikes share similar features, and similar outcomes; a pattern that repeats up and down the country. In January of 2019, a strike in Helmand killed ten children. Two months later and hundreds of miles away in Nangarhar, ten young cousins lost their lives. The pattern continues: in July of that year, a farmer in Baghlan lost his wife and six children.

These are just a handful of the thousands of strikes that have been recorded – the ones the Bureau has been able to investigate.

The number of children killed has led experts to question the legality of these strikes. But sustained official silences make it hard to find out why many of the bombings were carried out. Basic information is rarely forthcoming from either the Afghan or US armed forces. Questions plague the survivors: who killed their loved ones? And can anyone ever answer why?

In February this year, representatives from the Taliban and the US signed an agreement in Doha to end their war. The deal paved the way for a withdrawal of US troops after nearly two decades of fighting.

But that agreement is fragile and the idea of “peace” seems an endlessly distant prospect. As the details were being hashed out, strikes and raids carried out by US and Afghan forces were killing more than twice as many children as the Taliban.

In efforts to get the Taliban to negotiate, strikes rained down in record numbers, meaning that with grim inevitability the number of civilians killed and injured hit new highs.

A ruined home that has been overgrown with weeds

The ruins of Bismillah Khan’s home

The newlyweds

Bismillah Khan understands the toll of those strikes.

His extended family lived in a shared compound, made up of three homes. But in the early hours of September 1 last year the compound was hit by several strikes, reducing every building to rubble.

Bismillah was there. He survived the first bomb, which hit his uncle’s home. “I was sleeping under duvets in my uncle’s house. I realised that suddenly piles of stones, boxes and things fell over me.”

When Bismillah dragged himself out of the room, he met a scene of mayhem. “I could hear the women crying and screaming,” he said. “We were shouting in every direction, calling everyone’s name.”

Like dominos, each house in the compound fell around him. “The houses were hit one after another,” Bismillah said. “We were trying to take the ones alive from my uncle’s to the street then the second bomb hit.”

The third strike took out the last standing building in the compound, he said. “There we heard my cousin from under the rubble, and while helping him to get out, the fourth bomb hit.”

By daybreak, twelve members of the family had lost their lives, including seven children and Rahima, 19. She had married Zabihullah, one of Bismillah’s cousins, just seven months earlier; the whole family had celebrated their wedding. Zabihullah, 21, had survived.

Pictures of the aftermath of the strike in Faryab were shared online
Bismillah said he and his surviving family members had been profoundly changed by their grief

There were few answers from the armed forces on what went wrong the night the Khans were hit.

Reports surfaced of a deadly attack on civilians. But an email from the US military said that no American strikes had hit the area in question within 72 hours of the date of the attack. The Afghan military, the only other force in Afghanistan that conducts air strikes, had announced that 47 Taliban fighters had been killed in the area, but did not reply to requests for comment and rejected allegations that civilians had been harmed.

The strike was one of a number of devastating incidents investigated by volunteers working with the Bureau and Bellingcat, an organisation that specialises in online investigations. The group helped to collect evidence being shared on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and matched this with news reports and other sources.

The group was quickly able to establish that the strike had probably taken place (false or misleading reporting by militia groups make confirming this a sad necessity in every case). Within a few hours of online investigation, there were mounds of evidence to contradict the official denials: picture after picture of destruction – dead bodies, a destroyed house, the sorrowful aftermath.

In Afghanistan, Bismillah had been told a new story. He said that Afghan officials told him US forces were responsible for the strikes. But Afghan civilians have no way to directly approach the US armed forces. He had nowhere else to turn.

“No one took responsibility for this, although it was such a horrible incident,” he said.

Fractured by war, the remaining family members struggle in the aftermath. “After the incident my mother is in a different state of mind, she can’t speak.” Bismillah said. His aunt is similarly affected. “She lost young daughters … it is too much to carry.”

Rahima’s husband is gone too now. In the wake of her death, he decided to leave the country and was last heard from in Turkey. The family say they do not know where he is now.

A girl with a bloodied face from a head wound sits in a wheelchair in a hospital ward

Parwana, 9, was injured in a strike in late 2018Andrew Quilty

A fact of life

Civilian casualties are “a fact of life”, James Mattis, then the US defense secretary, said when grilled about rising death rates in 2017. “We do everything humanly possible…to avoid civilian casualties at all costs … We’re not the perfect guys, but we are the good guys,” he added.

His words carried the implicit recognition that civilian casualties are an unavoidable consequence of war. But the frequency and gravity of those casualties is not predetermined – it depends how much effort goes into avoiding them. In the Afghan war, priorities have changed; for the better, and then for the worse.

It took until 2008 for civilian casualties to be taken seriously by the military in Afghanistan, said Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon senior intelligence analyst who became head of civilian protection in Afghanistan for the United Nations. That year civilian deaths in the conflict had risen to a record high.

One particular incident turned the tide. On 22 August 2008, US forces all but wiped out an entire village. The public denials were even more publicly refuted, with The New York Times visiting the village and printing an image of the horror on its front page. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Garlasco said. “It completely changed the way Nato dealt with civilian casualties.”

In the aftermath, steps were taken to limit civilian casualties. One was a directive put in place in 2009 that limited the use of force – such as air strikes – in residential and populated areas.

It served as recognition that strikes near and on homes, like the one that hit the Khan family, had a direct and predictable effect on civilian deaths. It had a massive impact – a UN report covering the year after the directive was passed noted a “substantial decrease” in civilian casualties.

The changes in approach meant that even as the number of troops and operations in Afghanistan grew, the number of innocent people dying went down. “It wasn’t perfect,” Garlasco said. “But it’s the closest to a gold standard I’ve seen from a military in my career”.

But at the end of 2014, the Nato-led military mission in Afghanistan came to an end. It was replaced by one that focussed mostly on training, advising and assisting the Afghan military, while the US continued its separate counter-terrorism mission. The team of a dozen analysts working on civilian casualties shrunk down.

“The real kicker is that as Nato leaves, things shift to the Afghan forces,” Garlasco said. “The Afghan air force can now carry out strikes, but they don’t have the capability to protect civilians. And not only do they not have it, they don’t want it.” By 2017, 49 per cent of civilian casualties from air strikes were caused by the Afghan military.

A boy with a large dressing on his abdomen lies in a bed

Rahmatullah, 8, injured in the same strike as Parwana in 2018. Two of their relatives were killedAndrew Quilty

A relaxed attitude to harm

The pace of the air war has only increased.

In 2015, the first year after all foreign forces bar the US stopped conducting operations in Afghanistan, there were about 500 strikes. By 2019, that number was fourteen times higher, at more than 7,000.

In 2016, the US had adopted a more relaxed attitude to civilian harm. The authority to carry out risky strikes was devolved to lower-ranking officials without the previous rigid sign-off process. Even strikes that would be more likely to endanger innocent lives did not have to go through the same checks.

The air war intensified after President Trump came into office in 2017. He vowed to “lift restrictions and expand authorities”, warning: “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”

Then, in October 2017, the rules of engagement were changed. The “proximity requirement” had mandated that strikes could only be used where troops had come into contact with enemy forces. With it removed, the US military could use strikes more freely, shifting the focus of the air war from the defensive to the offensive. At the same time, more Afghan units were given the power to call in air support.

“One of the most dangerous things for civilians is when the commander wants the war to be over quickly,” a former British officer told the Bureau. “The results are always the same: short-lived military conquests, grotesque numbers of civilian casualties, followed by long-term bloodshed.”

Garlasco compared the US’s recent conduct to 2010, when troop numbers and operations rose but civilian casualties fell. “It goes to show that just because you have a high operation tempo, you don’t necessarily have to kill a large number of civilians,” he said. “This depends on leadership.”

By the end of 2018, the number of civilians killed by air strikes had risen by more than 80 percent, reaching a figure higher than the totals for 2014, 2015 and 2016 combined.

The next year strikes increased further as part of efforts to bomb the Taliban to the negotiating table. A deal was born out of that violence – US troops are preparing to withdraw after two decades of war.

But it came at a great cost; last year, the UN found that more than 1,000 civilians had been killed or injured in strikes, the highest number of casualties they had ever recorded.

Sherif Khan lost a brother, a sister-in law and ten nieces and nephews in a strikeAl Jazeera

The village doctor

In Nangarhar, in the east of Afghanistan, there is another Khan family still counting the cost of a strike. They are not related to Bismillah, but the story the survivors tell is the same.

Sherif Khan lost a brother, a sister-in law and ten nieces and nephews when twelve members of his family were wiped out in strikes on March 9 2019. One of his brothers, a serving soldier in the Afghan army, lost five of his children in the strike that hit his house. Two months later, Sherif said, he was killed on active duty.

The brother killed in the strike, Nazargul, was the village’s doctor. Sherif’s two daughters worked at his clinic as midwives. “He was so kind to the people,” Sherif told a crew from Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines, who collaborated with the Bureau on this investigation. “Two or three o’clock in the night, he would come out from his house to treat children or women, treating them in the cold, rainy, and hot weather.”

Sherif is now guardian to the doctor’s three surviving children. Waheeda, the oldest, managed to save two of her younger sisters that night. But life after so much loss is difficult to comprehend, especially at just 14 years old. “I lost my home and my good life … My father died. My mother died. I have no one now,” she said.

Waheeda, 14: “I have no one now.”Al Jazeera

Despite the testimony of Sherif and Waheeda, the strike has not been confirmed by the US military. It also has not been denied. Instead, it has been designated “possible”, one of the confusing terms used to classify civilian casualty allegations, and one that leaves survivors with no clear answers.

But even this result is in some ways a victory, even if a hollow one. Last year, the US military confirmed only a fifth of the civilian deaths attributed to them by the United Nations mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). Most of the allegations were deemed “not credible” or “disproved”. But despite what the term suggests, “not credible” usually means that the military simply does not have enough information to carry out a full investigation.

The US says its figures differ because it has access to additional intelligence, such as drone footage, which shows that “what appeared to be US military-caused civilian casualties … actually had other causes”.

In a press conference in 2017, the commander of operations in Afghanistan said: “The Afghans are building better accountability of every place and time that they drop a munition and, of course, we have almost 100 percent accountability on the US side every time we deliver an aerial munition.” He added: “This would be one of the reasons why we would disagree on the numbers.”

Research has found that the US forces rarely interview witnesses or survivors of strikesAlamy

It is hard to verify this claim because the details of military investigations are only very rarely made public. What little is public sheds doubt on it.

One of the more common rebuttals to civilian casualty allegations is that the US military carried out no strikes in the area at the time in question. But while this response sounds robust, it is not always reliable.

One example can be found in the case of Masih Ur-Rahman Mubarez, who lost his wife, seven children, and four young nieces in 2018. The US military responded as above, denying any strikes in the area. An eight-month investigation by the Bureau and The New York Times uncovered evidence proving their involvement in the killings – in the form of a weapon fragment – eventually leading to an admission from the US.

This is not an isolated event. On multiple occasions military monthly releases of data showing no strikes in a province were later contradicted by the force itself.

In one of the cases in the set of strikes investigated with Bellingcat, the Bureau was given an official response that the strike had been disproved. Further investigation soon uncovered evidence, further supported by a UN report, that innocent people had been killed.

In another case, even an official Afghan government investigation and UN reports were not enough to convince the US military the strike they had carried out had not killed legitimate military targets, but fourteen women and children sheltering in a house.

The US forces eventually reversed their position, but only after the UN lobbied directly and the Afghan military stepped in to pay the survivors a condolence payment.

A fighter jet flying past snow-capped mountains


Like looking through a straw: how the US investigates

“The US has not conducted on-the-ground investigations for many years, so they rely on visual and satellite imagery which … is simply not 100 percent reliable,” Patricia Gossman, senior researcher on Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, told the Bureau. “Such imagery cannot detect who is inside a building.”

Senior military officials have spoken of how limited the imagery can be – with drone footage compared to looking through a “soda straw”, often leaving out more information than it provides.

It was much easier to investigate allegations, the officials said, when the US still had a large number of troops on the ground. Then they could easily dispatch a patrol to talk to those affected.

But there is still more the Pentagon could do now that the US has fewer than 12,000 personnel in Afghanistan. Gossman has spent years investigating the military’s investigations into air strikes. She found they very rarely interviewed witnesses and never conducted site visits.

Not interviewing witnesses is a “critical flaw” in the process, she said. The US military also relies on information from Afghan forces, which Gossman said cannot always be trusted.

“The Afghan authorities merely ask the original force – army, police, or air force – to file a report. This means asking them to investigate themselves,” she said. “In one recent case of an air strike, the security officials who were dispatched from Kabul to investigate merely asked their colleagues in the same force what had happened and that was the extent of the investigation. They did not interview witnesses and survivors.”

The on-the-ground realities reflect this. When the Bureau and The New York Times shared findings from our investigation into the strike on Masih’s house, the US military concluded it was “possible although unlikely” that civilians died in the strike – reversing its initial position. But during that entire year-long process, no official spoke with Masih and the results of the US’s investigation were not communicated to him.

Masih was not alone in this. Speaking to an Al Jazeera film crew, Sherif Khan said that no one from the US had made contact with his family and an Afghan promise to investigate had not been followed up.

The aftermath of a strike in Baghlan that killed Ismael Khan’s wife and six children

In these cases, families have been left in the dark. At the same time, it is up to them to prove the innocence of their dead relatives – and themselves.

For a moment, imagine the unthinkable: you find your home destroyed and the bodies of your children in the rubble. Your faith requires you bury them as soon as possible.

But to prove their deaths and get compensation from an Afghan government fund, you have to collect up their bodies, sometimes in pieces, and take them to the nearest hospital. When reports of the strike reach the news, officials claim that only Taliban fighters were killed.

Ismael Khan lost his wife and six children in a strike. Rather than take the mangled bodies of his family to the nearest hospital, he chose to bury them quickly, in accordance with Islam. But as a result, he said he has struggled to get the compensation he believes he is owed from a specific government fund for Afghanistan’s war dead.

The local hospital director confirmed that bodies had to be brought there for survivors to qualify for the compensation. He said the policy was put in place to limit potential false claims. “We know it caused lots of problems to people … but this is how the system is designed.”

Khairullah, 15, was the oldest of Ismael’s six children
Sanaullah, 2, was the youngest

While he has been given a small amount of money from elsewhere, Ismael is desperate for further official recognition that his children were victims of the near interminable conflict that has ravaged Afghanistan for decades.

The Afghan government has recently created a civilian casualty counting body, housed in the Presidential Information and Coordination Center in Kabul


Change is hopefully coming, said Sahr Muhammedally, who advises militaries and governments on civilian harm mitigation as part of her work for the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC).

The Pentagon is developing its first department-wide policy with regard to civilian casualties, with the aim of applying the same standards across all of America’s wars.

In Afghanistan, Nato has made some efforts to reduce harm, noting that civilian casualties were “the single greatest threat” to the mission. The US has streamlined their investigations process to deal with the rising number of allegations.

Muhammedally believes there is real political will in the Afghan government to reduce harm, pointing to new policies and the creation of a casualty counting body. But she warned: “Translating that will into practice takes time and mentoring. The US is withdrawing, yet Afghan forces face enormous challenges. It’s important not to abandon progress.”

The Pentagon policy is expected by the end of the year, but how long it takes for changes to be felt on the ground remains to be seen.

In the meantime, transparency in Afghanistan is decreasing. Questions on the status of internal investigations are given one word answers; requests for more information are pushed into a queue of hundreds. Last month, the US military announced it would no longer say how many bombs it drops in Afghanistan, ending ten years of public records. It claimed the data could adversely impact the Taliban peace talks.

The US’s behaviour in Afghanistan is not mirrored in its other conflicts. In Iraq and Syria the US military responds to a much higher number of allegations on a monthly basis, and engages with third parties openly. Last month, the US commander for Somalia announced a quarterly civilian casualty report, saying: “Where we come up short, we will admit it openly.”

The Afghan Air Corps on paradeAlamy


Experts told the Bureau that the stories uncovered by our investigation, as well as the sheer number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, raised questions about the legality of US and Afghan military operations.

Daragh Murray, a senior law lecturer at the University of Essex, said the cases “raise serious concerns around compliance with the law of armed conflict”. He highlighted the principle of proportionality, which put simply, means that while it is legitimate to attack a Taliban fighter, this attack must not cause disproportionate harm to civilians or civilian property.

He added: “As the targeted buildings were ostensibly civilian in nature, and likely to be inhabited by relatively large numbers of civilians, questions must be asked as to why the decision was taken to call in air strikes, rather than to attack using less destructive means.”

Patricia Gossman agrees. “A situation where you have 100 civilians killed in 10 air strikes, with 70 percent of the dead being children, raises serious concerns that these strikes may have been disproportionate.”

But with such limited transparency, both agree it can be difficult to work out what is proportionate. The “why” of most strikes remains mysterious, with any investigations largely kept secret from the wider public in both the US and Afghanistan.

Neither the US nor Afghan forces responded to any of the specific allegations of civilian harm put to them by the Bureau.

Some strikes are accompanied by reports of Taliban fighters forcing their way into homes and then firing on troops, often in the hope that the civilians will act as “human shields”, protecting them from retaliation.

But the actions of the Taliban do not negate the responsibility of US and Afghan troops to protect civilian life. Even in these strikes, flattening an entire home would be a questionable response according to the experts. This is especially true for strikes at night – when the majority of those investigated by the Bureau took place – because families are more likely to be at home and in bed.

Many of the families in this story are pinning their hopes on an international trial to get answers. In March, the International Criminal Court ruled that an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by the US and other warring parties in Afghanistan could proceed, overturning an earlier rejection.

“We are ready for any trial, either the international court or internal Islamic court. We only have that demand. We have no other requests from Americans. Anyone who has done this cruelty to us should be convicted,” said Sherif Khan.

Sherif Khan said he was prepared to take a case to the International Criminal CourtAl Jazeera

Masih is equally determined to see justice done in court. “I am pinning my hopes on the ICC’s hearings after being denied justice by the Americans and Afghan government officials,” Masih told an Al Jazeera reporter.

He told the Bureau: “From the first day, when people were coming to me paying their condolences, I was telling them that I will ask for justice.”

But it is unclear whether those hopes will ever be realised. The ICC faces many challenges, including deliberate non-cooperation from the main parties of the conflict. Last year, the US revoked the visa of the court’s main prosecutor to hamper the Afghanistan investigation.

There are doubts that the ICC can serve justice for the families the Bureau has spoken to – for Bismillah, Sherif, Masih, Ismael, and for the dead. But regardless, Muhammedally says there needs to be a way forward.

“There are sad stories in every family, those who live in Taliban areas and have been affected by air strikes, the families of Afghan security forces who have to bury their soldiers … every Afghan has suffered,” she said.

“There is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. The government and the Taliban need to come to the negotiating table and ask the question: can we continue to suffer?”

The aftermath of the strike that killed Masih Ur-Rahman Mubarez’s family

Header image: Children recuperating after a strike on their home. Credit: Andrew Quilty. The full story of that strike can be read here.

Our Shadow Wars project was funded by the Open Society Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. None of our funders have any influence over the Bureau’s editorial decisions or output.

The families paying the price for the war in Afghanistan
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