A new report from Brown University’s Costs of War Project found that civilian deaths in airstrikes in Afghanistan dramatically rose after the Trump administration loosened the rules of engagement for the conflict in 2017.
“The number of civilians killed by 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,” the report reads.
International military forces — the US and its allies — are responsible for the majority of civilian deaths by airstrikes. According to UN numbers, in 2016, international airstrikes killed 127 civilians. In 2019, the number grew to 546. From 2015 through 2019, 1,357 civilians were killed by international airstrikes, compared to 461 killed by the Afghan Air Force.
The report notes the correlation between the US relaxing the rules of engagement and civilian deaths: “From 2017 through 2019, with the war in a long stalemate, the US relaxed its rules of engagement for airstrikes. As a consequence, civilian casualties due to airstrikes increased from 2017 through 2019. In 2019, more Afghan civilians were killed in airstrikes than at any time since early 2002.”
The report says the Trump administration ramped up airstrikes to gain leverage in its negotiations with the Taliban that started in 2018. This ploy was put on stark display by the number of bombs dropped on the country during that time. “Indeed, there were more weapons dropped from the air in 2018 and 2019 than at the height of US presence in Afghanistan in 2011,” the report reads.
Since the US-Taliban peace deal was signed in February 2020, international airstrikes in Afghanistan have been significantly reduced. US Central Command also stopped publishing reports on airstrikes after the agreement was signed. But since the Afghan government and Taliban began intra-Afghan talks, the Afghan Air Force ramped up airstrikes.
The report reads: “In September 2020, after the negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government opened, fighting between the two sides intensified and there was a spike in both the number of Afghan Air Force airstrikes and the number of civilians killed and injured in those strikes.”
The UN found that in mid-2020, “Civilian casualties resulting from airstrikes by the Afghan Air Force during the first six months of 2020 have tripled as compared to the same time period in 2019.”