The quarterly report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) published on Thursday raised the alarm about unprecedented civilian casualties in the country. The previous quarter saw a 42% increase in civilian casualties over the previous year, and July was the single most violent month since records began in 2009.
“For the sixth year in a row, UNAMA has recorded more than 8,000 civilian casualties in the first nine months of the year, underlining that Afghans have been exposed to extreme levels of violence for many years, despite the statements of parties to the conflict to prevent and mitigate harm to civilians,” the report states. “UNAMA urges parties to redouble their efforts to protect civilians from harm.”
Primarily at fault for the spike in civilian casualties was the Taliban, by itself responsible for 46% of civilian casualties. Daesh-Khorasan, a franchise of the Islamic State that recently set up shop in the Central Asian country and finds itself sharply at odds with the Taliban, was responsible for another 12%, and together, all pro-government forces, including US forces and the Afghan Armed Forces, accounted for 28% of casualties. Crossfire during firefights was credited with 9% of casualties, and 4% were due to “undetermined anti-government elements.”
All told, between January 1 and September 30, 2019, the UN documented 8,239 civilian casualties: 2,563 deaths and 5,676 injuries. July alone saw 1,589 civilian casualties, with 425 deaths and 1,164 people injured.
The report notes that the leading cause of casualties was “the combined use of suicide and non-suicide improvised explosive devices (IEDs),” responsible for 42% of the total; ground engagements were responsible for 29%, while aerial attacks were responsible for 11%. However, aerial attacks remain the primary culprit for civilian deaths, accounting for 23% in the first nine months of 2019.
That should come as no surprise: a September 30 strike report by US Air Forces Central Command found the US had run the most airstrikes in Afghanistan of any month since October 2010, with 1,043 bombs being dropped on targets. US Defense Secretary Mark Esper noted that, especially after peace talks with the Taliban broke down early in the month, the US “did pick up the pace considerably” of its air attacks on Taliban and Daesh targets. That report also noted that August saw more airstrikes than any month in 2019.
“Although civilian casualties from suicide and complex attacks decreased compared to 2018, the significant spike in violence from these incident types during the third quarter is notable,” the UN says. “While civilian casualties from ground engagements were down by 15 per cent at the midyear point, UNAMA documented a significant increase of this incident type in the third quarter of 2019. This caused levels of civilian casualties from ground engagements from the first nine months of 2019 to reach similar levels to those from that incident type in the same time period of 2018. This is due in part to civilian casualties caused by indirect fire during the presidential election in the third quarter.”
“The impact of Afghanistan’s conflict on civilians is appalling; every verified number is a person, someone’s relative – mother, father, daughter, son,” Fiona Frazer, UNAMA’s human rights chief, said in a Thursday press release accompanying the report. “The United Nations will continue its advocacy work with all parties to the conflict until Afghanistan reaches the only acceptable number of civilians killed and injured in the conflict: zero.”
The US-led war in Afghanistan entered its 18th year on October 7, having begun in 2001 when US forces invaded the country to overthrow the Taliban government for its role in facilitating al-Qaeda’s terror attacks in the US the previous month. The Taliban became an insurgent force, deriding the new pro-Washington government set up in Kabul as a US puppet.
According to the Costs of War Project at Brown University, by August 2016, more than 111,000 Afghans had been killed in the war since 2001, including civilians, soldiers and militants, but the group cautions that total deaths due to indirect causes of the war might reach as high as 360,000. A more recent but constrained estimate by the UN found that roughly 16,000 civilians have been killed in the war since 2009.