The number of Afghan civilians killed in air strikes increased dramatically after the U.S. military relaxed its rules of engagement in 2017, according to a study by a U.S. university researcher that was rejected by the U.S. military as “one-sided.”
The number of civilians killed rose from 250 in 2016 to 700 in 2019, more than in any other year since the beginning of the war in 2001, according to the research released on December 7.
The study, conducted as part of the Cost of War project at Brown University and Boston University, said the number of civilians killed by air strikes carried out by international forces has varied depending on the tactics and the priority the United States has placed on preventing civilian casualties.
The research was an attempt to understand why even as the war in Afghanistan is supposed to be winding down large numbers of civilians have been killed in air strikes in the past several years.
The study attributed the rise in civilian deaths in air strikes between 2016 and 2019 to the U.S. decision to relax its rules of engagement in 2017.
In 2008, for example, international forces' air strikes killed 552 civilians. After that, the United States and its allies committed to reducing the number of civilians killed by air strikes, and by 2014 the number of civilians killed in air strikes by international forces dropped to 101.
But in 2017, the United States relaxed its rules of engagement so that U.S. forces did not have to be in direct contact with enemy forces to be able to make air strikes. This meant that narcotics factories could be targeted and that Afghan military forces could call in air strikes.
"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," the report said.
The increase in air strikes also reflected that there were fewer U.S. troops on the ground in the years when the number of air strikes increased, and the increase came at a time when the United States was pressuring the Taliban to negotiate and bring an end to the war.
The research was based on data from the United Nations, the U.S. Department of Defense, and other sources.
After the United States and the Taliban reached an agreement in February 2020, air strikes by the United States and other international forces declined along with the harm to civilians, the study said.
The U.S. military disagreed with the “one-sided analysis” presented in the report, saying it “relies on disputed data and ignores civilian casualties” caused by Taliban and Islamic State (IS) attacks.
“This includes ongoing Taliban use of car bombs, IEDs, rockets and targeted killings to intimidate, harass and instill fear across Afghanistan,” U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Spokesman Colonel Sonny Leggett said in a written statement sent to RFE/RL.
Leggett cited an October report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) as saying civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes "all but ceased” since late February.
That same report attributed 3,450 civilian casualties to “anti-government elements” such as the Taliban and the IS group between January to September.
The Afghan government is now negotiating with the Taliban, and the study said as part of a broader offensive possibly aimed at increasing Afghan government leverage in the talks, air strikes by the Afghan Air Force (AAF) have increased.
The AAF this year has killed 156 civilians compared with 83 killed by air strikes carried out by international forces.
The study says some of the deaths could have been avoided by tighter rules of engagement and better training.