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Civilians Are Dying in Fewer Numbers in Afghanistan, but They’re Increasingly Being Killed by Pro-Government Forces

These trendlines should create alarm in Kabul and Washington.

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Mark Hickok patrols through a field during a clearing mission in Marja in Afghanistan's Helmand province on April 9, 2011. (Image Credit: U.S. Marine Corps/John M. McCall)
U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Mark Hickok patrols through a field during a clearing mission in Marja in Afghanistan's Helmand province on April 9, 2011. (Image Credit: U.S. Marine Corps/John M. McCall)

In its midyear update on the protection of civilians in Afghanistan released on Tuesday, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan or UNAMA reported a decline in war-related deaths of Afghan civilians during the first six months of this year. An estimated 1,366 civilians were killed from January to June 2019—the lowest number since 2013.

But as civilian deaths due to Taliban attacks continue their decline from last year, more civilians are dying at the hands of pro-government forces, including the United States.

Pro-government forces were responsible for a majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan over the first half of this year. The Afghan government, U.S. and coalition forces, and pro-government militias were responsible for 52 percent or 717 out of the total 1366 civilian deaths from January 1 to June 30 of this year, compared to 402 over the same period last year. As deaths inflicted by pro-government forces surge, the Taliban are killing fewer civilians. In the first six months of this year, the Taliban killed approximately 423 civilians, which appears to be down from the corresponding period last year.

The Taliban are proving to be less deadly to Afghan civilians as they are resorting to fewer indiscriminate suicide attacks. The group also controls or contests most of Afghan territory and they could view the present period as a window to consolidate control rather than engage in brutal offensives that would kill large numbers of civilians.

These trendlines should cause the administrations of Donald Trump and Ashraf Ghani to worry as they are bound to impact perceptions of both the Afghan government and coalition forces, especially in rural areas. Until this year, the Taliban have been the main cause of civilian deaths since UNAMA began collecting these figures in 2009.

The exercise of greater restraint by the Taliban coincided with the stepping up of aerial attacks and ground raids in Taliban-held and Taliban-contested territory by the Trump administration. The Taliban not only hide among civilian populaces, but they are also ultimately from them. Many Taliban fighters live with their families in or near their native villages. While the Trump administration is deploying greater firepower in Afghanistan with the aim of pressing the Taliban to agree to a comprehensive peace deal with both Washington and Kabul, it could actually be weakening its own hand by alienating and angering the Afghan population.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News and host of The Pivot podcast. He's contributed to publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, and POLITICO Magazine, and has appeared on broadcast outlets such as Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio. Rafiq is also a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.

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