KABUL, Afghanistan – Civilian casualties soared in Afghanistan after the start of peace talks between the government and the Taliban in September, even as the total number of deaths and injuries fell in 2020 compared to the previous year , the United Nations reported on Tuesday.
In its annual report documenting civilian injuries and deaths, the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan found that escalation in civilian casualties began shortly after the opening of intra-Afghan negotiations on September 12 in Doha, in Qatar, increasing 45% in the last quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. The civilian death toll in November was the highest in any year this month since the UN began documenting systematically the Afghan victims in 2009, according to the report.
“2020 could have been the year of peace in Afghanistan,” said Deborah Lyons, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan. “Instead, thousands of Afghan civilians have perished as a result of the conflict.”
The report was released as talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban remain stalled amid relentless violence, and a February 2020 agreement between the United States and the Taliban is under consideration by the administration. Biden.
As a result of this agreement, concluded a year ago, the number of civilian casualties for the year was 15% lower than in 2019. The 8,820 civilian casualties documented in 2020 – 3,035 killed and 5,785 injured – represented the first time since 2013 that this figure had dropped below. 10,000, according to the report.
The decline has been attributed to a reduction by the Taliban in massive attacks in major cities and a drop in the number of US airstrikes – both of which have contributed to high civilian casualties rates in previous years.
But civilian casualties increased in the fourth quarter as fighting raged in the countryside between the Taliban and Afghan government forces. At the same time, a targeted assassination campaign of shootings and bombings killed officials and members of the security forces, journalists, civil society advocates and family members of the combatants.
Religious minorities, particularly the Hazaras, most of whom are Shia Muslims, and the country’s small Sikh population were also targeted.
The 2,792 civilian casualties (891 dead and 1,901 injured) recorded in the last three months of 2020 represented the second-highest total for this period since 2009.
The Taliban have denied targeted attacks on anyone other than government employees or supporters, but the Afghan government has blamed the militants for most of the attacks.
Last year was the seventh consecutive year that the UN has documented more than 3,000 civilian deaths, “Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.
The report noted that many Afghans had hoped the violence would abate after the government and Taliban negotiators began formal talks, which aim to agree on a roadmap for a future Afghan government and work towards a ceasefire. global fire.
“Instead, there has been an escalation in violence with worrying trends and consequences,” the UN report says.
After the two sides agreed on procedures to guide negotiations in early December, talks were suspended until the first week of January. But there have been no formal negotiations since then. Instead, there was heavy fighting, with both sides awaiting a decision from the Biden administration on whether to honor or extend the May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan. , as stipulated in the February 2020 agreement between the United States and the Taliban.
Part of the increase in casualties in the fourth quarter was caused by an increase in home-made magnetic bombs attached to vehicles and triggered by timer or remote control. The UN report also documented a still high rate of civilian casualties caused by road bombs and car bombs set off by the Taliban and other anti-government elements.
The UN report attributes 62% of civilian casualties in 2020 to anti-government elements, with the Taliban responsible for 45% of the total and the Islamic State in Afghanistan responsible for 8%. Another 9 percent was attributed to undetermined anti-government elements. Although the Islamic State has been weakened and mostly confined to the east, it has turned to guerrilla-style attacks and killing massively in urban areas as it attempts to rebuild its ranks.
Government forces were responsible for 22% of civilian casualties for the year, the report said, with an additional 2% attributed to pro-government armed groups. The report attributes 13% of civilian casualties to crossfire or unknown causes.
US-led international forces were responsible for just 1% of civilian casualties in 2020, according to the report – 120 civilian deaths and injuries, an 85% decrease from 2019, when 786 casualties were attributed to international forces. It was the lowest figure in this category since 2009.
After the February 2020 agreement, the Taliban refrained from attacking US or other NATO forces. US commanders have generally limited airstrikes to cases where government forces were under extreme threat during Taliban assaults.
But that hasn’t stopped US planes from dropping hundreds of bombs with little responsibility after the military stopped publicly reporting the strikes last year.
A full year has passed in Afghanistan without a US combat death, the only such period since the invasion of the United States in 2001. The two most recent US combat deaths in Afghanistan occurred on February 8, 2020, three weeks before the signing of the agreement between the Taliban and the United States.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.