Amid Afghan Peace Talks, U.n. Reports Record Civilian Deaths In 2018
KABUL, Afghanistan — Even with peace talks underway, the war in Afghanistan killed almost 4,000 civilians last year, including a record number of children, officials said Sunday, making it the single deadliest year for Afghan civilians since the United Nations began documenting casualties a decade ago.
In a report released Sunday, the United Nations attributed almost two-thirds of civilian casualties — 63 percent — to insurgent groups, primarily the Taliban and the Islamic State. Afghan and American forces were responsible for 24 percent — 14 percent by Afghan national security forces, 6 percent by American forces and 4 percent by government-backed armed groups. Responsibility for the rest could not be established.
The single biggest cause of civilian casualties was suicide bombings and related attacks by insurgents, the report found. The numbers of civilian casualties caused by suicide bombings and by American and Afghan government airstrikes were each the highest recorded since the United Nations issued its first report in 2009.
The figures reflected a surge in fighting as both sides in the conflict, which is in its 18th year, stepped up attacks as they sought leverage in peace talks between the United States and the Taliban.
Islamic State attacks on civilians rose 118 percent for the year, the United Nations found, while Taliban attacks on civilians nearly doubled.
The report was released a day before the next round of peace talks between American and Taliban negotiators, scheduled for Monday in Doha, Qatar. The Taliban refuse to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they consider illegitimate.
Among the dead last year were 927 children, also the highest annual total reported by the United Nations. Insurgents were responsible for 44 percent of child casualties in 2018, with Afghan and American forces blamed for 34 percent. The number of children killed in airstrikes more than doubled in 2018 compared with 2017, the report said.
In a statement, Tadamichi Yamamoto, the United Nations secretary general’s special representative for Afghanistan, called the figures “deeply disturbing and wholly unacceptable.” Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, called the record number of children killed “particularly shocking.”
The United Nations urged the Taliban to stop indiscriminately bombing civilians and asked the Afghan government and the United States to more rigorously investigate allegations of civilian casualties and to provide reparations.
In a letter included in the report, the United States military command in Kabul, the Afghan capital, said “all feasible precautions” were taken to limit civilian casualties. Any allegation of civilian casualties considered “serious” resulted in “an inquiry and formal review process,” it said.
The letter listed 62 confirmed deaths and 55 confirmed injuries from American combat operations last year. An additional 68 deaths and 66 injuries were listed as “disputed” because of insufficient information.
A Taliban letter rejected the United Nations’ findings and denied that insurgents fired from civilian areas, used civilians as cover or engaged in “indiscriminate and disproportionate” attacks against civilians using homemade bombs.
A letter from the Afghan government said its tally of civilian casualties caused by Afghan forces was “significantly lower” than the numbers in the United Nations report. It called protecting civilians the Afghan government’s “paramount duty.”
Almost all of the civilian deaths and injuries attributed to American forces resulted from airstrikes. They caused a record 536 civilian deaths last year, more than the deaths from airstrikes in 2014, 2015 and 2016 combined, the report said.
American aircraft dropped more than 7,300 bombs, missiles and other munitions over Afghanistan last year, up from 4,300 in 2017 and 1,300 in 2016, according to United States Air Force data. The airstrikes were part of an effort to displace the Taliban, who control more territory now than at any time since the United States invaded in 2001.
The pace of ground attacks rose as well. American and Afghan commandos more than doubled the number of joint raids from September to early February, compared with the same five-month period a year earlier, military data show.
Civilian casualties attributed to Afghan and American forces rose 24 percent compared with 2017, the United Nations reported.
The report said government search operations had killed 284 civilians. It attributed many of those casualties to covert C.I.A.-backed units whose abuses were detailed in a New York Times report in December.
Insurgents also went on the offensive, carrying out an average of 1,700 attacks a month late last year, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a United States agency. The United Nations said ground clashes were responsible for nearly a third of civilian casualties in 2018.
The arrival of Islamic State militants in Afghanistan after 2014 posed a new threat to civilians, especially Hazaras, a mostly Shiite Muslim minority. The Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim group, considers Hazaras apostates and has targeted them for attack.
The only significant pause in civilian casualties last year came in June, when both sides agreed to a brief cease-fire during the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
Two large-scale insurgent campaigns contributed to high civilian casualty rates: a suicide ambulance attack in Kabul in January, and insurgent attacks against polling sites during the parliamentary election in October. The United Nations said nearly half of all insurgent suicide bombs and complex attacks in 2018 took place in Kabul.
Since 2009, the United Nations has reported 32,000 civilians killed and 60,000 injured.
“In addition to the lives lost, the dire security situation is preventing many Afghans from enjoying their economic, social and cultural rights, with thousands of children already handicapped for life because of attacks on schools and medical facilities,” Ms. Bachelet, the United Nations official, said in a statement.