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Report: With Relaxed Restrictions, More Civilians Died in Air Strikes in Afghanistan in 2017-2020

Relaxed rules of engagement for air strikes led to increased civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

Report: With Relaxed Restrictions, More Civilians Died in Air Strikes in Afghanistan in 2017-2020
Credit: Photo by Tech. Sgt. Oneika Banks

From 2016 to 2019, the number of civilians killed by international air strikes in Afghanistan increased around 330 percent, according to a new report from Brown University’s Costs of War project. The increase in civilian casualties was a product of a 2017 decision by the Trump administration to relax the rules of engagement.

It’s not difficult to connect the dots: “When the United States tightens its rules of engagement and restricts air strikes where civilians are at risk, civilian casualties tend to go down; when it loosens those restrictions, civilians are injured and killed in greater numbers.”

In 2009, General Stanley McChrystal took over the coalition war effort in Afghanistan and, bothered by the high rate of civilians being killed by U.S. airstrikes, ordered a tightening of the rules of engagement. As the Costs of War report recounts, two weeks later a U.S. air strike in Kandahar injured 13 and killed five people. “What is it we don’t understand? We’re going to lose this fucking war if we don’t stop killing civilians,” McChrystal said in response. 

Per the Costs of War report, the restrictions on air strikes fluctuated depending on which source of pressure was most acute. When international and government forces feared they were losing or needed to increase pressure on militants, rules were relaxed; when pressure from the Afghan government, NGOs, and media was higher or Washington viewed civilian casualties as “counterproductive” the rules were tightened. 

In October 2017, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis revealed changes to the rules of engagement. The biggest adjustment was scrapping a prior requirement that U.S. forces had to be in direct contact with enemy forces in order to call in an air strike. The Trump administration’s intention to intensify the war had been signaled earlier in 2017, with the April dropping of one of the largest non-nuclear bombs ever built, the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, also called the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB), in Nangarhar on Islamic State forces.

In comparison to 2016, the final full year of the Obama administration, the Trump years have marked a rise in the number of strike sorties and weapons released, and consequently a rise in the number of civilian casualties. The United States and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) keep different statistics with regard to civilian casualties. For example, UNAMA attributed 546 civilian deaths to “international air forces” in 2019, the highest number since 2008. The U.S., however, counts just 97 deaths due to U.S. air strikes in 2019.

U.S. and international air strikes have decreased since the February 2020 deal between Washington and the Taliban, but Afghan Air Force strikes have risen in the ensuing months. While the Afghan government and the Taliban began talks in September, the report notes that “unless there is a ceasefire, both sides will continue to gain a tactical advantage while negotiations are underway.” Invariably, air strikes will be a part of that maneuvering for advantage and, given past patterns, civilians will suffer.