10 Conflicts to Worry About in 2022
High risk of violence targeting civilians under Taliban rule
In August 2021, the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan following nearly two decades of conflict with the United States and the NATO-backed Afghan government. This regime change significantly shifts conflict dynamics in Afghanistan, driving down political violence in the second half of 2021. While overall levels of political violence fell with the Taliban takeover, violence towards civilians has persisted. Ethnic and religious minority groups, women, and members of the former government and security apparatus have faced especially high targeting. Meanwhile, armed clashes have also continued — albeit at lower levels — with the emergence of armed resistance against the Taliban and the ongoing Islamic State (IS) insurgency.
Over the course of 2021, conflict trends changed dramatically as negotiations gave way to lightning advances by the Taliban. Early in the year, amid ongoing US-initiated peace negotiations between the Taliban and the former Afghan government, the Taliban continued to launch regular attacks on Afghan state forces. ACLED records an increase in armed clashes from February 2021 onwards, as the peace negotiations entered another stalemate and the change in US administration raised questions over its future Afghanistan policy (International Crisis Group, 13 January 2021). In April, the US announced a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 2021 (The Guardian, 14 April 2021), with remaining NATO forces subsequently announcing their withdrawal as well (NATO, 14 April 2021). Emboldened by diminishing NATO support to Afghan forces, the Taliban significantly increased ground offensives against Afghan forces and decreased attacks using IEDs and suicide bombers.
Between May and June 2021, the Taliban gained ground from Afghan forces at a considerable pace. During this time, ACLED records a higher number of Taliban territorial gains than during the entirety of 2019 and 2020. By July, the Taliban controlled numerous strategic checkpoints, military bases, and district centers within every province. The Taliban’s territorial advances continued throughout the first half of August, as they captured strategic provincial capitals including Kandahar, Sar-e Pol, and Helmand.
On 15 August, Taliban forces entered Kabul, seizing the state’s administrative and security headquarters, and overthrowing the government (CNBC, 18 August 2021). In the immediate aftermath, a mass exodus of Afghan and foreign nationals contributed to chaos around Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. Exploiting the chaos, IS carried out a suicide attack at the airport, killing over 180 civilians. This attack was followed by US airstrikes targeting IS, adding to the turmoil. The insecurity and confusion created by the abrupt power shift led many civilians, former government officials, and media and civil society workers to hide or flee the country (The New Yorker, 17 August 2021; USIP, 28 September 2021).
In the following weeks, demonstration events rose significantly as civilians – including those who lived through the previous Taliban government – expressed concern over Taliban rule (Afghanistan Analysts Network, 17 August 2021). Anti-Taliban demonstrations were held in multiple provinces on and around Afghanistan’s Independence Day on 19 August. These protests were dispersed by the Taliban, at times violently, with at least three protesters killed during an Independence Day demonstration in Jalalabad. Since the Taliban takeover, women-led demonstrations have featured prominently. ACLED records over 30 protest events held by women against restrictive policies imposed by the Taliban since mid-August. Protest levels peaked in September before declining from October onward after the Taliban banned unauthorized protests (Washington Post, 12 September 2021).
While the number of battle events significantly decreased in the aftermath of the August takeover, armed resistance against the Taliban continued until the end of the year, as two main armed groups clashed with Taliban forces: the National Resistance Front (NRF) and IS. The NRF, an anti-Taliban resistance group formed in Panjshir valley in August (BBC News, 3 September 2021), has clashed with the Taliban in over 100 battles in northeastern Afghanistan. IS, meanwhile, has targeted Taliban members, mostly in Nangarhar and Kabul provinces, with over 80 attacks. Although the Taliban has long underplayed the IS presence in the country, it recently began large-scale operations in response to the group’s ongoing activities (Washington Post, 22 November 2021).
At the same time, civilians have been continuously targeted by unidentified armed groups, the Taliban, and IS since the fall of Kabul. These attacks have targeted a range of different groups, including ethnic and religious minority communities, women, and people linked to the previous government. Overall, between August and the end of 2021, ACLED records more than 290 targeted attacks on civilians accounting for over 37% of all disorder events in Afghanistan and resulting in over 420 reported fatalities. In comparison, between 2017 (the start of ACLED coverage) and 15 August 2021, targeted attacks on civilians made up eight percent of all disorder events in the country, underlining the significant shift in the conflict environment since the fall of Kabul.
Taliban forces and unidentified groups have particularly targeted former government officials and security personnel in recent months, with attacks on these groups constituting 30% of all civilian targeting events between August and December 2021. Taliban forces have also conducted extrajudicial killings of civilians accused of being linked to IS during their operations against the group. These killings have been especially common in Nangarhar province, where dozens of people have been hanged or beheaded over alleged connections to IS (Al Jazeera, 14 December 2021; Pahjwok Afghan News, 7 October 2021). Meanwhile, IS has targeted Shiite Muslim and Hazara groups, killing over 100 people across at least five attacks during this period. Perpetrators of over 30% of violent events targeting civilians were unknown.
In addition to attacks on former security forces and ethno-religious groups, ACLED records over a dozen cases where women have been targeted for violence by either the Taliban or unknown perpetrators (GIWPS, 28 January 2022).
What to watch for in 2022:
This trend in an increased rate of civilian targeting continued into January 2022, in which attacks on civilians made up 36% of all disorder events, indicating that civilians will continue to remain at heightened risk of violence under the new Taliban regime.
Additionally, although the Taliban claim to have military dominance and support from the local population (New York Times, 3 November 2021), Afghanistan’s multi-layered religious, political, and tribal structures may foster the consolidation of other armed movements. For example, in October 2021, prominent political and military figures formed an anti-Taliban coalition (distinct from the NRF), the Supreme Council of National Resistance of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, warning of military action should political negotiations fail (Hasht-e Subh, 22 October 2021). IS is also suspected to be recruiting Salafist Afghans and has continued to launch attacks, threatening to destabilize the Taliban’s position as the dominant security provider (The Diplomat, 12 October 2021). Also, internal fighting among different Taliban factions has resulted in nearly two dozen battle events since they seized control of Afghanistan. Despite an initial decline, battles now make up 41% of all organized political violence events recorded since the fall of Kabul. The rebounding number of battle events suggests that internal rifts among Taliban factions and ongoing opposition to Taliban rule from both resistance forces and IS has the potential to keep escalating. Continuing clashes are also likely to increase the risk of targeted violence against civilians, such as retaliatory killings of alleged supporters or sympathizers of rival groups.
Distrust of the Taliban regime has also led international actors to freeze Afghanistan’s assets, exacerbating ongoing economic turmoil and pushing many people into poverty (Foreign Policy, 5 October 2021). New domestic policies, like the redistribution of land in favor of Taliban leaders, have displaced local communities, further increasing their vulnerability to the economic crisis (Gandhara, 9 December 2021).
Afghanistan entered an unprecedented phase in 2021. The country’s future largely depends on the Taliban’s willingness to reform as well as its capacity to reconcile and/or contain internal factions and ongoing armed resistance groups like the NRF and IS. Considering that the Taliban is still transforming into a governmental structure, it is unlikely that the group will significantly reevaluate its most hardline policies in the short term. Civilians will likely continue to face the brunt of continued political and economic instability in 2022.
- Demonstrations: This term is used to refer collectively to all events coded with event type protests, as well as all events coded with sub-event type violent demonstration under the riots event type.
- Disorder: This term is used to refer collectively to both political violence and demonstrations.
- Event: The fundamental unit of observation in ACLED is the event. Events involve designated actors – e.g. a named rebel group, a militia or state forces. They occur at a specific named location (identified by name and geographic coordinates) and on a specific day. ACLED currently codes for six types of events and 25 types of sub-events, both violent and non-violent.
- Political violence: This term is used to refer collectively to ACLED’s violence against civilians, battles, and explosions/remote violence event types, as well as the mob violence sub-event type of the riots event type. It excludes the protests event type. Political violence is defined as the use of force by a group with a political purpose or motivation.
- Organized political violence: This term is used to refer collectively to ACLED’s violence against civilians, battles, and explosions/remote violence event types. It excludes the protests and riots event types. Political violence is defined as the use of force by a group with a political purpose or motivation. Mob violence is not included here as it is spontaneous (not organized) in nature.
- Violence targeting civilians: This term is used to refer collectively to ACLED’s violence against civilians event type and the excessive force against protesters sub-event type of the protests event type, as well as specific explosions/remote violence events and riots events where civilians are directly targeted.
For more methodological information – including definitions for all event and sub-event types – please see the ACLED Codebook.
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