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Casualty monitors fall silent as Taliban takeover restricts free press

Casualty monitors have fallen virtually silent as Afghan reporters go into hiding and foreign media leaves the country in wake of Taliban takeover

The Taliban have taken control of Afghanistan’s capital, president Ashraf Ghani has fled the country, and thousands of Afghan civilians and foreign nationals are desperately trying to board evacuation flights out of Kabul airport. 

It has been a week of striking and rapid change in Afghanistan, not only in terms of the daily developments in the Taliban’s nationwide takeover. As images and stories of fearful chaos flood our television screens and social media feeds, a very different and disquieting silence has descended upon the casualty counting monitors that watch Afghanistan. 

AOAV has been recording the casualties of explosive weapon use in the country since 2011 and over the last decade, 2011-2020, there have been an average of seven civilian casualties from explosive violence per day. This year, there was an average of five civilian casualties from explosive violence per day and 11 daily casualties in total. 

However, since the Taliban’s lightning advance on Kabul, AOAV has not recorded a single incident of casualty-causing explosive weapon use, among civilians or armed-actors, in one week since August 14th. This marks the longest consecutive stretch of days this year without civilian or armed-actor casualties from explosive violence being reported, and quite possibly since AOAV’s records began in 2011. It has been two weeks since the New York Times published their last report on casualties in Afghanistan – a weekly list of casualty-causing incidents involving civilians and armed forces alike, that has for years been published every Thursday. Two Thursdays have now passed since their last report on Afghanistan’s war dead and wounded.

Though incidents of gun violence continue to pierce through the near media black out that has engulfed much of Afghanistan, there is still a lot we do not know about how many civilians have been wounded or killed during the Taliban’s break-neck ascent to power in the last two weeks. 

Foreign media have been leaving Afghanistan en masse since July. Now, many in-country Afghan reporters have gone into hiding since Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid threatened Afghan journalists, ordering those who give “one-sided news in support of Afghanistan’s intelligence” service to stop or “face the consequences.” 

Though the Taliban have publicly declared they will offer amnesty to Afghans who worked with the previous regime, NATO forces, and the international media, reports coming out of Kabul today, August 20th, show Taliban militants going door-to-door with lists targeting “collaborators.”

The absence of casualty entries from Afghanistan in AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor this week is unlikely to represent an actual absence of explosive violence in Afghanistan.

Between August 1st and 10th alone, the Taliban caused 60 civilian casualties (47 fatalities) from the use of explosive weapons, nearly 60% of the total number of civilian casualties recorded by AOAV in Afghanistan in August. Further, there is hard evidence that the Taliban intentionally and brutally target civilians. An Amnesty International report published yesterday, August 19th, details the torture and murder of nine ethnic Hazara men by Taliban militants in early July during the offensive on Ghazni. It is unlikely that this violence towards civilians has simply vanished since the Taliban reached Kabul. 

There are a number of variables beyond the departure of on-the-ground journalists that could contribute to the absence of casualty information available in English-language media reporting. 

There have been fewer armed-actor casualties in recent weeks due, in part, to widespread dissolution and dissertation of Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) troops during Taliban offensives. The Washington Post reported on high levels of desertion in the ANSF as the Taliban captured provincial capitals across the country and moved towards Kabul. The lack of armed resistance and frequent surrender by the ANSF to the advancing Taliban have meant fewer armed-actors are being killed and wounded, and fewer civilians are being caught in the crossfire. Foreign intervention on the ground has all but vanished, while sporadic, targeted airstrikes by the Afghan Air Force and occasionally US Air Force has reduced the number of civilian casualties caused by frequent airstrikes and on-the-ground offensives.

Finally, as the world watches the Taliban in these early days of their de facto rule, the fundamentalist group appears intent on publicly presenting themselves as an ally of Afghan people. The detonation of IEDs in populated areas, as the Taliban has done at least 282 times in the last ten years, causing at least 6,289 civilian casualties, would now be contradictory to this messaging. 

World leaders across the globe declare that the Taliban will be judged by their actions and not their words. Yet, as the presence of a free press in Afghanistan has been diminished, it begs the question: How can we know the full extent of their actions without the evidence to prove it? Where are all the ready and waiting Taliban-built IEDs that have tormented Afghanistan’s people these last twenty years?