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Afghanistan: a case study in IED harm

An IED in Afghanistan. Credit: Reporterly

Landlocked and mountainous, Afghanistan has suffered from such chronic instability and conflict during its modern history that its economy and infrastructure are in ruins, and hundreds of thousands of its people are refugees. 

The Taliban, who imposed strict Islamic rule following a devastating civil war, were ousted by a US-led invasion in 2001 but have recently made a comeback. The internationally-recognised government set up following the adoption of a new constitution in 2004 has struggled to extend its authority beyond the capital and to forge national unity. 

NATO-led foreign combat troops had the main responsibility for maintaining security after 2001, and the formal end of NATO’s combat mission in December 2014 was followed by an upsurge in Taliban activity.  The conflict in Afghanistan has been marked by the use of IEDs. These are often made using legacy-of-war materials or with readily available precursor materials that are often sourced from neighbouring Pakistan.

The impact of IEDs in Afghanistan
IEDs have been the leading cause of conflict-related civilian death in Afghanistan every year since 2001 (excluding 2014 and 2016 when, according to UN data, there was a higher number of small arms casualties linked to fighting between Afghan forces and the Taliban).  Such widespread IED usage has also risen and fallen in line with levels of Taliban military activity. The Taliban are responsible for the majority of IED attacks in Afghanistan in the last decade, with such attacks becoming wide-spread after 2009.

There have been 27,539 civilian casualties from explosive violence in Afghanistan the past 10 years. Of these, 77% (21,637) were caused by IEDs. These were from some 2,288 IED attacks between October 2010 and September 2020. Some 6,625 civilians were killed and 15,012 were wounded by IEDs in Afghanistan in the last decade. Woundings from IEDs are likely under-reported in the national and international press, as AOAV’s research has frequently pointed out.

Afghan National Army Counter IED Specialist in Afghanistan. Credit: Defence Images

Armed Actors
In total, some 3,565 armed actors have been killed and 3,071 injured in the last decade. In total, 117 armed bases were targeted by IED attacks, but most strikes were road-side bombs (834 incidents).  In addition, there were over 500 suicide attacks, which saw 3,365 armed actors killed or injured.

Since the beginning of the conflict in 2001, there have been 829 US military personnel killed in Afghanistan by IEDs – some 42% of all American forces killed there during the war.  In the same time-frame, 222 British troops were killed by IEDs, constituting 49% of all British military deaths in Afghanistan.

At least 1,409 children were killed or injured by IEDs in the last decade in some 335 reported explosive incidents. Suicide attacks in Afghanistan led to 469 child casualties. Of all explosive incidents that saw children being injured or killed, 91 were by victim-activated IEDs. These caused 289 young victims. 

In Afghanistan, some 782 women have been harmed by IEDs in the last decade. Of a total number of 2,288 incidents, 242 reported women among the casualties. In these incidents, women accounted for at least 21% of the casualties. Many news reports in Afghanistan do not routinely record the gender of civilians harmed by explosive weapons.

In the last decade, 42% of all IED incidents in Afghanistan took place in populated areas.  This minority of incidents, however, accounted for 82% of all IED-related civilian casualties in the last ten years. 

The main perpetrators of IED violence are non-state armed groups, but 75% of attacks have not been claimed. Where the perpetrator is known, 88% (504) of attacks have been attributed to the Taliban; 11% (65) to ISIS. 

Weapon types
There were 370 VIEDs (victim-activated) in the last decade, killing some 1,076 civilians and injuring a further 703. VIEDs also killed 318 and injured a further 217 armed actors.  Again, it is likely that in many VIED incidents woundings go under-reported. Non-specified IEDs were reported for 48% of overall IED harm in Afghanistan. Roadside bombs and car bombs represent 20% and 30% of IED attacks, respectively. 

Specific targets of suicide IEDs
There have been over 500 suicide attacks in Afghanistan in the past 10 years. The Taliban were named in 232 of these attacks by English language media. ISIS was responsible for 52 attacks. Suicide attacks caused 13,268 civilian casualties and 3,365 security personnel and armed actors woundings of fatalities. 70% of suicide attacks in Afghanistan in the last decade took place in populated areas. 2018 saw the highest number of suicide attacks – 74.

The main targets of suicide attacks were roads (usually targetting a convoy) with 78 incidents; armed bases (77 incidents); public buildings (71); and police stations (61). The attacks that caused the most civilian casualties were public buildings (2,552 civilian casualties); places of worship (1,729 civilian casualties); and public gatherings (1,491 civilian casualties.)

A brief recent history
1979 – Soviet Army invades and props up communist government. More than a million people die in the ensuing war.

1989 – Last Soviet troops leave. US- and Pakistan-backed mujahideen push to overthrow Soviet-installed Afghan ruler Najibullah triggers a devastating civil war.

1996 – Taliban seize control of Kabul and impose hard-line version of Islam.

2001 – US intervenes militarily following the September 11 attacks on the United States. Taliban are ousted from Kabul and Hamid Karzai becomes head of an interim power-sharing government.

2002 – NATO assumes responsibility for maintaining security in Afghanistan.

2004 – Loya Jirga adopts a new constitution which appears to provide for a strong presidency. Hamid Karzai is elected president.

2014 – Ashraf Ghani is elected president. NATO formally ends its combat mission in Afghanistan, handing over to Afghan forces.  IED use rises rapidly.  The government faces a growing insurgency.

2020 – Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban begin.

An AOAV report on the impact of IEDs today, and through history – and what this means for the future: IEDs: past, present and future.

Additional research was given by Terry Bishop