Urban Warfare: Principle of Protection of Civilians and Afghan Warfare

by Madhura Sapkal, Student at Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai


In the contemporary era, the nature of warfare has changed and it shifted to urban areas affecting the civilian population. Since the time of the World Wars, cities have been targeted and severely affected by the wars. In such armed conflict, what protection is provided to the civilian population. The blog will also look into the effects and challenges of urban warfare with the help of a case study.


Since the time of the World Wars, cities have been targeted and severely affected by the wars. Earlier, it is observed that wars have happened on empty land away from the towns and establishments. This practice does not mean civilians were enjoying mundane life, there was the destruction of cities, and civilians suffered. But, in the contemporary era, the nature of wars has changed drastically. The conflicts are shifting more towards cities/urban areas. In the Second World War, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed many civilians and affected them over a period of time, is one such example.

One of the reasons for the urbanization of wars is because contemporary armed conflicts are more internal wars than international. Internal conflicts are long-lasting and involve enemies with different dynamics. Also, as the rural population is shifting to urban areas for various opportunities, the urban population has increased rapidly. One of the reasons for non-state armed groups in NIAC to fight in urban zones is the means and forces available. The urban environment works to their advantage as they get attention from media houses, political parties, and economic powerhouses.

Urban warfare has severe impacts on the lives of civilians. Thousands of civilians have died due to the loss of civilian property, the collapse of healthcare facilities, and the terror brought on by bombing.[i] International Humanitarian Law mandates that parties to a conflict take constant precautions to “spare the civilian population, civilians, and civilian objects” during hostilities. The principles of distinction, proportionality, and precautions mandate rules for identifying targets, minimizing incidental harm to civilians, and taking preventive measures to avoid harm to civilians during hostilities.

The parties involved often do not adhere to the obligations; therefore, implementation is one of the significant issues, but the efforts to mitigate the impact of the same can be worked upon. The aim of this blog is to understand the effects of urban warfare on civilians. Further, it will discuss the challenges that arisen from urban warfare. The civilians are provided protections under IHL, which will be addressed. Lastly, it will look into the current situation in Afghanistan to understand the impact, challenges and how the citizens are protected.

Urban Warfare: Challenges

When the war happens in urban areas, the normalcy in civilian life is also lost. A complex web of interconnected infrastructure systems provides essential services to the civilian population in urban settings. When executing a military operation in a city, there are two significant obstacles to overcome: the ability to comprehend the environment. And second is the ability to grasp how to operate in a given context. Both of these problems are more difficult to complete in a city than in any other setting. Cities’ neutrality as operational environments can only be claimed if these problems are minimized or ignored. The cities are very complex structures and built over a long period. Cities include various systems that allow cities to endure as an optimum centre of a massive civilization despite the particular civic, social, and economic conditions that caused their development in the first place. Once any part of this structure is destroyed, the system can collapse. The infrastructure such as hospitals and schools once affected can impact the life of the civilians in many ways. Moreover, cities are connected, which can have a domino effect on the other cities. When a military interacts with the systems of an urban region, the consequences (to citizens, local and global economy, and the system’s natural stability) are significantly more significant than the costs in any other context. One of the numerous negative repercussions of urban warfare on residents is displacement within cities or other locations. Aside from the danger to civilians and the interruption of critical urban services, one of the main drivers of long-term displacement is the damage or destruction of civilian housing, which is often caused by the deployment of massive explosive weapons. While displacement is not explicitly stated as a relevant category of civilian harm in the principles of proportionality and precautions, it may raise the danger of death, injury, or disease depending on the circumstances.

These challenges are dependent on how the military is ordered to take out their operation. They are obliged to understand human geography and act accordingly to achieve their missions. Cities, regardless of objective, oblige the military to think of new ways to operate precisely to the environment.

Protection Of Civilians

IHL aims to minimize the damage caused by war and protect civilians exposed to and not participating in the war. For urban warfare, there are very few specific rules regarding it. The Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols and customary law include the core rules of IHL that govern the conduct of hostilities. Usually, existing regulations are interpreted in such a way that they would be applied to urban warfare. There are three principles of IHL, i.e. proportionality, distinction, and precaution, used to regulate hostilities and protect civilians.

Principle of distinction- this principle aims to protect civilians and property. It prohibits the attacks such as “those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective” since they are too inaccurate.[ii] There must be a distinction created between soldiers and civilians and between military goals and civilian aims. Any military action taken must be proportional to the plan. Many times civilians are used as human shields, and it is often argued that they are abusing their status as a protected person.

Principle of Proportionality- It is prohibited by this principle to attack where the damage would not be proportional to the military advantages gained.[iii] Proportionality is a well-established principle, but there are specific issues with its interpretation in urban areas. There is no accuracy as to how belligerents should use this, whether to apply for a single strike or multiple strikes. IHL does not prohibit collateral damage, but there have to be limitations to it.

Principle of Precautionary- This principle states that parties to an armed conflict must obtain all the information of impacts of an attack on the areas and casualties that can arise given the attack. This evaluation can be aided by technology advancements and the collection of factual data on the use of specific weapons, which is available in open source. For practical assessment, civil societies and urban specialists should be included to determine the collateral damage.

Defending troops are required under Article 58 of Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions to safeguard the people under their control from enemy attacks, keep civilians out of the vicinity of military objectives, and avoid placing military purposes in or near heavily populated areas.

It is challenging to apply the principle of distinction in urban warfare due to the complex nature of cities, as every other object is civilian. This makes principles of distinction and proportionality challenging to follow. The challenge that arises is often an inability to distinguish between civilians and enemy combatants. The military forces in such cases are expected to gather as much information as possible and act according to it to minimize the damage to a civilian object. 

Urban Warfare: Case Study

While Afghanistan has been subjected to persistent combat for almost three decades, the unrest was mostly limited to the country’s rural areas. Despite infrequent, deadly attacks, Afghanistan’s cities have long been thought to be reasonably safe. That isn’t the case now. After the withdrawal of US troops, the Taliban started taking over urban areas, and the Taliban and Afghan government engaged in conflict in the urban areas, disturbing the people’s lives. The Taliban forces again neglected the IHL and continued attacks against civil society activists and journalists.[iv]

Between 1988 and 2018, the capital city of Kabul’s population rose by 182 per cent, too little over four million, according to conservative estimates.[v] IHL makes it an obligation of the parties to restrict the damage of explosive weapons to a minimum or use explosives in a way that won’t harm civilians. But the Taliban continue to practice targeted killing in cities which have taken the lives of many civilians.[vi] The Taliban never claims responsibility for such a killing.

The country is undergoing one of the world’s fastest urbanization waves. Migration has been fueled by economic possibilities and access to cities, while violence has displaced an increasing number of Afghans from rural areas. Violence gives rise to displacement, and the Afghans that have migrated to cities are living in slums. The IHL’s specific provision for urban warfare is in Additional Protocol I, covering the international armed conflict. The current situation in Afghanistan is a NIAC and the Taliban not adhering to the customary law worsens the life conditions for Afghans. The targeted killing exercise of the Taliban has no regard for the principle of proportionality and precautions. They are merely trying to erase all the potential threats. Such executions by the Taliban have lost multiple civilians lives, emerging yet another crisis.

In this urban warfare, IHL seems to be of no use as one of the parties is entirely negligent towards the prospective law. Withdrawal of the US’s troops has strengthened the violence, and a peace agreement is of no use. The central government of Afghanistan can frame national policies for urban warfare and urge the international community to aid in protecting civilians. International aid is mandatory in this situation. The cities have become a battleground for the Taliban, and the government’s deteriorating power contributes to the civilians’ sufferings.

The IAC between India and Pakistan[vii], for which the battleground is Kashmir, has disturbed people living in that territory. The continuous clashes, curfews as well as decreasing standard of living are the effects of urban warfare.[viii] There are numerous sieges in Kashmir over a period of a year.[ix] The sieges are not limited to the restriction of movements but also a basic necessity in the digital age such as the Internet. The IHL nowhere defines the term ‘siege’, but it interprets it under the starvation of civilians, evacuations and bombardment dimension of sieges. Though the attacks in such areas are prohibited, they continue to happen, resulting in civilian’s casualties. This is also a severe breach of fundamental rights as children are restricted from school and people of their movements. The effects of sieges or urban warfare, for that matter, are beyond the reach of IHL.


Urban warfare will continue to grow in future, and increasing migration to urban areas will worsen the conditions for the population. The party to armed conflict is non-state armed forces often do not care for the IHL obligation. They continue the exploitation of civilians according to their whims and fancies. Even in the case of IAC between India and Pakistan, civilians are suffering generations after generations. The existing law does provide various measures for the protection of civilians, but there are multiple implementation challenges. The focus should be on strengthening the current law and taking help from civil societies or international actors to aid the civilians.

Disclaimer – All views and opinions expressed in this article are personal and belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the LAABh Foundation or the individuals and institutions associated with LAABh Foundation.


[i] United Nations Security Council, Protection of civilians in armed conflict, report of the secretary-General, 6 May 2020, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/S_2020_366_E.pdf, Accessed on 6th August 2021.

[ii] Article 51§4 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949.

[iii] Article 57(2) (a)(iii) of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949.

[iv] Aljazeera, ‘Nobody is safe’: New killings deepen Afghan journalists’ fears, 4 March 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/4/nobody-is-safe-new-killings-deepen-afghan-journalists-fears, Accessed on 6th August 2021.

[v] Human Rights Watch, Afghanistan: Taliban Target Journalists, Women in Media, 1 April 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/04/01/afghanistan-taliban-target-journalists-women-media, Accessed on 6th August 2021.  

[vi] Ashley Jackson & Antonio Sampaio, Afghan Cities Become Key Battlegrounds, War on the Rocks, April 9 2021, https://warontherocks.com/2021/04/afghan-cities-become-key-battlegrounds/, Accessed on 6th August 2021.

[vii] Though India has not signed the Additional Protocol I, both the countries are obligated to the Geneva Convention and Customary International Law.

[viii] Euronews, India-Pakistan clash over kashmir leaving at least 13 dead, 14 Nov 2020, https://www.euronews.com/2020/11/14/india-pakistan-clash-over-kashmir-leaving-at-least-13-dead, Accessed on 6th August 2021.  

[ix] Riyaz Wani, Life Under Siege in Kashmir, the diplomat, 21 Jan 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/01/life-under-siege-in-kashmir/, Accessed on 6th August 2021.

Though India has not signed the Additional Protocol I, both the countries are obligated to the Geneva Convention and Customary International Law.

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