On April 14, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that after 20 years of deployments to Afghanistan, the U.S. military would fully withdraw from the country. The announcement put to rest questions of whether Biden would hold firm to the preceding U.S. administration’s agreement with the Taliban to withdraw by May 1, 2021. Instead, U.S. forces began their final withdrawal on May 1, with the aim to complete that process by September 11, 2021.
Biden’s announcement triggered a flurry of commentaries, some supporting, some condemning. One concern often cited is the withdrawal’s possible affect on the level of violence in Afghanistan. It will be important to benchmark the present level of violence, and the targets of that violence, to hold future assessments to reasonable account.
Following the February 2020 agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, Taliban attacks on U.S. forces all but ceased. The year ended with the lowest number of U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan since the war began. Of the 10 U.S. servicemembers killed in Afghanistan in 2020, four were killed in hostile action before the signing of the February 29, 2020 deal — the rest died in accidents. While this is in part a reflection of the reduction in U.S. troops, particularly after the changeover of the mission from combat to advising at the end of 2014, clearly the peace deal is playing a major role.
But while U.S. military casualties have remained low, Afghan casualties — both military and civilian — have arguably soared. Although the relevant specific data on Afghan National Defense and Security Force (ANDSF) casualties is classified, in its latest quarterly report the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) commented that “ANDSF casualties from January 1 to March 31, 2021, were substantially higher compared to the same period last year.” The same held true for civilian casualties.
SIGAR notes that the increase may be in part due to depressed levels of violence leading up to the February 2020 deal. But the statistics remain worrying. SIGAR reports that the number of insider attacks on ANDSF personnel increased 82 percent in the first quarter of 2021, compared to 2020, “resulting in more than double the casualties from insider attacks.”
In addition to the steady pace of attacks against Afghan security forces, evidenced by continuous news reports, 2020 saw a steady rise in targeted killings of Afghan intellectuals, government officials, journalists, and activists. The U.S. mission in Afghanistan, Resolute Support, according to SIGAR reported “exceptionally high” civilian casualties in early 2021. Civilian casualties did decline 29 percent compared to the October-December 2020 period, and the winter months tend to see fewer attacks and casualties across time. Nevertheless, in the first three months of 2021, civilian casualties were 29 percent higher than the same period in 2020. Resolute Support attributed 93 percent of the first quarter civilian casualties to anti-government forces, with 61 percent attributed to the Taliban.
The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has slightly different figures, for example attributing a higher percentage of civilian casualties to pro-government forces, but the trend remains the same. In mid-April, UNAMA reported that it found a 29 percent increase in civilian casualties in the first quarter of 2021, compared to 2020, with a 37 percent increase in the number of women killed and injured and a 23 percent increase in child casualties. UNAMA noted that although intra-Afghan negotiations began in September 2020, in the six months from October 2020 to March 2021 civilian casualties rose 38 percent, compared to the previous year. The signing of the 2020 agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban came with a week-long reduction in violence, but that did not last — at least for Afghans.
On May 1, the official start of Washington’s final withdrawal a U.S. airfield in Kandahar “received indirect fire,” as U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan Col. Sonny Leggett tweeted. Leggett followed by quoting Gen. Scott Miller, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, who warned the week prior that “A return to violence would be one senseless and tragic.” U.S. military leaders have stressed that they are prepared for increased Taliban attacks as they withdraw. Some analysts, however, point out that the Taliban want the U.S. to exit and to attack too much could ruin the fulfillment of that core desire.
Meanwhile, attacks on Afghan forces and Afghans continue. On April 30, a suicide truck bomber rammed a guest house in the capital of eastern Afghanistan’s Logar province, killing at least 26 at last count, most of them students. The attack was not claimed, but the Afghan government blamed the Taliban. Then on May 1,Taliban forces reportedly overran an Afghan military base in southeastern Ghazni province. According to the Afghan government, there were also Taliban attacks against security outposts in Farah, Baghlan, Badakhshan, and Herat, in addition to security incidents in a bevy of other provinces, too. It’s too many to keep easy track of, which bodes ill for the future.