By Jessica Donati
Civilian casualties in Afghanistan are headed toward a record high this year, the United Nations said Monday, as violence in the country worsens 15 years after the U.S.-led invasion.
There were 1,601 civilian deaths and another 3,565 injuries to noncombatants in the first six months of 2016, a 4% increase in casualties over the same period the previous year, the U.N. said in the report released Monday. Almost a third of those killed or wounded were children, it said.
The rise in civilian casualties was driven by an escalation of fighting around heavily populated areas in provinces where the Taliban is contesting government control, including Helmand, where the U.S. has deployed additional forces, and Kunduz, whose capital briefly fell to the insurgents last year.
Taliban insurgents were to blame for 60% of the deaths and injuries, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said. But an increasing number, it said, were also the fault of forces loyal to the Afghan government, which is backed by a U.S.-led coalition that remains in the country.
“Platitudes not backed by meaningful action ring hollow over time,” said the envoy, Tadamichi Yamamoto. “History and the long memory of the Afghan people will judge leaders of all parties to this conflict not by their well-meaning words, but by their conduct.”
Efforts to negotiate peace between the Taliban and the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani have been largely abandoned this year amid an escalation in Taliban attacks on government targets.
Combat between insurgent and pro-government forces continued to cause the highest number of casualties, with 549 deaths and 1,423 injuries for the first six months of this year, up 23% from last year.
The Afghan government and the Taliban traded blame Monday for the climbing civilian toll.
The defense ministry said enemy forces caused the majority of casualties by laying mines and firing indiscriminately in civilian areas. “We pay the utmost attention to prevent civilian casualties and we will to do so in the future too,” said deputy spokesman Mohammad Radmanish.
The Taliban rejected the U.N.’s report, calling it government and foreign propaganda. “Most of the casualties are caused by Kabul’s regime and foreign forces aimless shootings, bombardments and operations,” said spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.
The U.N. figures showed that suicide attacks, targeted killings and other types of orchestrated assaults have become the second-leading cause of casualties, especially in the capital Kabul, where the deadliest bloodshed has occurred.
In one of the deadliest attacks in the Afghan capital since 2001, a suicide bomber detonated a large vehicle packed with explosives at a security agency building in the center of the city, killing 64 people and wounding some 350 others. The Taliban claimed responsibility for that attack.
While the Taliban was responsible for a majority of civilian casualties during the first half of 2016, the U.N. noted that the toll represented an 11% decrease from the same period last year. The decrease reflected the group’s declining use of pressure plate bombs and fewer targeted killings.
But the number of civilian casualties inflicted by the pro-government forces—1,180—was a 47% increase from last year, the U.N. said. The rise was linked to an increasing number of security operations and the growing use of artillery, mortars, rockets and other explosives.
The U.N. also signaled concern over the government’s use of militias instead of the army and police. It said such groups act outside the law in some provinces and were protected from punishment by powerful individuals.
Expanded operations by the Afghan air force also contributed to the rise, the report said, with deaths and injuries caused by Afghan airstrikes more than doubling to 111 casualties. Another 50 casualties were attributed to U.S. airstrikes.