By David Zucchino
For the first time since the United Nations began documenting civilian casualties in Afghanistan a decade ago, more civilians are being killed by Afghan government and American forces than by the Taliban and other insurgents, according to a report on Wednesday.
Civilian deaths attributed to pro-government forces rose in the first quarter of this year even as overall civilian casualties dropped to their lowest level in that period since 2013.
The United Nations said in its quarterly report that pro-government forces were responsible for 53 percent of civilian deaths. But insurgents were responsible for the majority — 54 percent — of civilian casualties over all, even as the number of suicide bombings decreased compared with the same period in 2018, the report said.
During the first three months of this year, military operations escalated as both sides sought leverage in peace talks between the United States and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. At the same time, there has been a relative lull in insurgent suicide attacks that indiscriminately kill civilians, especially in Kabul, the capital. The city has been a repeated target during the conflict, which is in its 18th year.
“It is unclear whether the decrease in civilian casualties was influenced by any measures taken by parties to the conflict to better protect civilians, or by the ongoing talks between parties to the conflict,” the United Nations report said.
The agency reported 581 civilians killed and 1,192 wounded during the first quarter, a 23 percent decrease in overall casualties compared with the same period in 2018.
Other quarterly numbers may reflect an increasing reliance on airstrikes in a war in which Afghan security forces tend to hunker down in fortified bases rather than mount aggressive assaults against Taliban fighters. When attacked, Afghan forces often call for airstrikes by the American-trained Afghan Air Force to dislodge the enemy.
Aerial operations were the third-highest cause of civilian casualties, killing 145 civilians and wounding 83 during the quarter — a 41 percent increase for those type of casualties compared with the same quarter in 2018. The report attributed almost all of those casualties to American airstrikes.
“A shocking number of civilians continue to be killed and maimed each day,” Tadamichi Yamamoto, the United Nations secretary general’s special representative for Afghanistan, said in a statement. “All parties must do more to safeguard civilians.”
The latest figures provided by the United States military show that American warplanes dropped 790 bombs and other munitions in Afghanistan in January and February. That was a slight decrease from the 847 that were dropped during the same two months in 2018.
Col. Dave Butler, a spokesman for the United States military in Afghanistan, said that the American forces “hold ourselves to the highest standards of accuracy and accountability” and “strive for precision in all of our operations.”
“We reserve the right of self-defense of our forces as well as the Afghan security forces,” Colonel Butler said in a statement. “The best way to end the suffering of noncombatants is to end the fighting through an agreed-upon reduction in violence on all sides.”
The United Nations report said the decrease in suicide bombings in the first quarter might have stemmed from an especially harsh winter. The agency documented just four suicide bombings, all attributed to the Taliban, which caused 178 civilian casualties. That was down from 19 suicide bombings and 751 resulting casualties during the same quarter last year.
The Taliban, the Islamic State and other militants killed 227 civilians and wounded 736 in the first quarter, the report said — a 36 percent decrease compared with the same period in 2018.
The United Nations said pro-government forces killed 305 civilians and wounded 303 — a 39 percent increase from the first quarter of last year, and 34 percent of all civilian casualties for the first quarter of this year.
The report attributed the remaining casualties to crossfire and other causes.
Ground engagements were the single biggest cause of all civilian casualties, accounting for about a third of the total. A single mortar attack by the Islamic State last month in Kabul was responsible for about a fifth of all first-quarter civilian casualties from ground engagements, the report said.
The second leading cause of civilian casualties was improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. In a reversal from previous reporting periods, the majority of IED casualties were caused by non-suicide IEDs rather than those detonated by a suicide bomber, the report said.
The United Nations attributed 529 casualties to the deliberate targeting of civilians. Addressing the Taliban, the Islamic State and other insurgent groups, the report said that “the deliberate targeting of civilians — including government officials — is prohibited under international law and constitutes a war crime.”
Other leading causes of civilian casualties were targeted killings (9 percent of the total), explosive remnants of war such as land mines or unexploded rockets (7 percent) and search operations by pro-government forces (6 percent).
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in a statement that the report was biased against the Taliban, claiming that “the American occupiers” had caused more civilian casualties than it indicated.
“The Islamic Emirate has done its best to reduce civilian casualty figures to zero,” he said, referring to the Taliban’s name for their movement.
The United Nations reported in February that 2018 was the single deadliest year for Afghan civilians since the agency began documenting casualties in 2009. Almost 4,000 civilians died that year, including a record number of children. The 2018 report attributed 63 percent of civilian casualties to insurgent groups and 24 percent to pro-government forces.
The first-quarter drop in overall civilian casualties came after reports of initial progress at the latest round of peace talks in Qatar last month. Under a tentative framework reached by American and Taliban negotiators, the American military would withdraw from Afghanistan in exchange for a pledge by the Taliban not to allow terrorists to operate from Afghan soil.
About 14,000 American troops are currently in Afghanistan. About half are regular troops who train Afghan security forces, while American Special Operations forces work with Afghan commandos to conduct counterterrorism raids against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.