The report by Brown University Watson Institute’s Costs of War Project, one of the premier authorities on civilian casualties in the 19-year-long war, found a 330 percent increase in the number of Afghan civilians killed by US-led airstrikes from 2016, the final year of the Barack Obama administration, to 2019.
Author of the report, Neta C. Crawford, said: “Some of this harm could be avoided by tighter rules of engagement, as well as better training. A negotiated ceasefire might also yield results at the bargaining table and at the same time avoid escalating harm to Afghan civilians from airstrikes.”
From 2007 to 2016, US-led and Afghan government forces killed an average of 582 civilians each year, the report found.
From 2017 to 2019, during Trump’s tenure, those same forces killed an average of 1,134 civilians each year, a nearly 95 percent increase.
The sharp increase in civilian deaths followed a decision by Trump, in consultation with former Defense Secretary James Mattis and other military and civilian officials, to relax rules of engagement in the Afghan war in order to give US commanders more battlefield flexibility and to gain leverage at the bargaining table with the Taliban.
“From 2017 through 2019, civilian deaths due to US and allied forces’ airstrikes in Afghanistan dramatically increased,” the report states.
“In 2019 airstrikes killed 700 civilians – more civilians than in any other year since the beginning of the war in 2001 and 2002. After the US and Taliban reached a peace agreement in late February 2020, US and other international air strikes declined, and so did the harm to civilians caused by those strikes.”
According to the United Nations, US-led and Afghan government airstrikes killed more civilians than did Taliban militant attacks during the first half of 2019.
The new report found that as US-led bombings declined following the agreement reached with the Taliban in February 2020, Afghan government airstrikes have increased.
“As a consequence, the Afghan Air Force (AAF) is harming more Afghan civilians than at any time in its history,” the report states.
“In the first six months of this year, the AAF killed 86 Afghan civilians and injured 103 civilians in airstrikes. That rate of harm nearly doubled in the next three months. Between July and the end of September, the Afghan Air Force killed 70 civilians and 90 civilians were injured.”
“As with the international airstrikes, some of this harm could be avoided by tighter rules of engagement, as well as better training,” the report states.
The report also highlights the fact that a reduction or even total withdrawal of US ground troops does not mean an end to war or civilian casualties, as most American combat is one-sided and takes place in the air.
The report also states that there were more weapons dropped from the air in 2018 and 2019 than at the height of US presence in Afghanistan in 2011.
According to the Costs of War Project report, more than 43,000 Afghan civilians have been killed during the 19-year US-led war.
While Taliban insurgents have killed the most civilians, thousands of men, women, and children have also been killed by US, allied, and Afghan government bombs and bullets, the report states.