Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Civilian casualties have soared in Afghanistan during the tenure of President Donald Trump. (Photo: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP via Getty Images)

A volunteer carries an injured youth to a hospital following a bomb blast in Haska Mina district of Nangarhar Province on October 18, 2019. (Photo: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP via Getty Images)

Report Blames Trump Admin for 330% Rise in Afghan Civilian Casualties

"In 2019 airstrikes killed 700 civilians—more civilians than in any other year since the beginning of the war in 2001 and 2002." 

Brett Wilkins

The Trump administration's 2017 decision to loosen military rules of engagement meant to protect civilians was followed by a sharp increase in civilian deaths, a report released on Monday revealed. 

"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."
—Neta C. Crawford,
Costs of War Project

The report (pdf), by Neta C. Crawford of the Brown University Watson Institute's Costs of War Project—one of the premier authorities on civilian casualties in the 19-year so-called War on Terror—found a 330% increase in the number of Afghan civilians killed by U.S.-led airstrikes from 2016, the final year of the Obama administration, to 2019.

From 2007 to 2016, U.S.-led and Afghan government forces killed an average of 582 civilians each year, the report found. From 2017 through 2019, those same forces killed an average of 1,134 civilians each year, a nearly 95% increase. 

The sharp uptick in civilian deaths followed a decision by President Donald 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 U.S. commanders more battlefield flexibility and to gain leverage at the bargaining table with the Taliban as both sides sought to end the devastating war whose course has spanned nearly the entire 21st century. 

"From 2017 through 2019, civilian deaths due to U.S. 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 U.S. and Taliban reached a peace agreement in late February 2020, U.S. and other international air strikes declined, and so did the harm to civilians caused by those strikes."

According to the United Nations, U.S.-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 U.S.-led bombings declined following the tenuous peace pact reached with the Taliban in February 2020, Afghan government airstrikes have increased as the Kabul government negotiates its own peace agreement with the insurgents. 

"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 asserts. "A negotiated ceasefire might also yield results at the bargaining table and at the same time avoid escalating harm to Afghan civilians from airstrikes."

The report also underscores the fact that a reduction or even total withdrawal of U.S. ground combat troops does not mean an end to war or civilian casualties, as most American combat is one-sided and takes place in the air.

Crawford cites U.S. Gen. Lance R. Bunch, who said in June 2018 that "the entire purpose behind our air campaign is to pressure the Taliban into reconciliation and to help them realize that peace talks are their best option"—a policy that has drawn comparisons to the Nixon administration's so-called Christmas bombing campaign against Hanoi and other North Vietnamese cities in December 1972 during the closing weeks of the Paris peace talks. 

Consequently, the report states that there were more weapons dropped from the air in 2018 and 2019 than at the height of U.S. presence in Afghanistan in 2011.

Although there are still 43 days left in his presidency, it is possible that Trump will leave office being able to boast that he was the first president since Jimmy Carter to not start a new war. However, during his administration civilian casualties have increased in nearly all of the at least seven countries under U.S. attack in the War on Terror. Much of the increase has been attributed to Trump's loosening of rules of engagement. 

While campaigning for president, Trump vowed to "bomb the shit out of" Islamic State militants and to "take out their families," a war crime. The president even suggested that using nuclear weapons in Afghanistan might result in a quick U.S. victory, while conceding the possibility that "tens of millions of people would be killed."

According to the Costs of War Project, more than 43,000 Afghan civilians have been killed during the 18-year U.S.-led war. Taliban militants have killed the most noncombatants, but thousands of men, women, and children have also been killed by U.S., allied, and Afghan government bombs and bullets.

In the wider war against terrorism, estimates of civilian deaths caused by U.S.-led forces range from around half a million (pdf) to as many as two million (pdf).


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

160 Patient Advocates Demand Medicare Negotiation in Build Back Better Package

"We're confident that inclusion of comprehensive drug pricing reforms in the reconciliation package will lower prices, save lives, and ensure continued development of innovative new drugs."

Jessica Corbett ·


'Cartoonish Level Corrupt': As Dems Fight for Bold Agenda, Sinema to Fundraise With Its Corporate Opponents

"Sinema is setting her political future on fire," said one Democratic organizer. "If she doesn't change course drastically and soon, it will be too late."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Momentous Win': Years of Local Opposition Defeats PennEast Pipeline

Opponents in Pennsylvania and New Jersey cheer "cancellation of this unneeded, dangerous fracked gas pipeline."

Jessica Corbett ·


Amid Calls for Closure, House Dems Urge NYC Officials to End 'Inhumane Conditions' at Rikers

A dozen prisoners have died this year alone at the notoriously violent and overcrowded jail complex.

Brett Wilkins ·


'Quite Literally What Instigated the Tunisian Revolution': Outrage After NYC Food Vendor's Stall 'Trashed'

"The abuse of street vendors will continue until there is legislative change, creating a pathway for New York City's smallest businesses to formalize."

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo