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UN: American airstrikes contribute to record number of children, civilians killed in Afghanistan

A member of the Afghan Local Police watches the aftermath of bombings by American F-16 fighter-bombers against a key valley in Deh Bala district in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, Saturday, July 7, 2018.

J.P. LAWRENCE / STARS AND STRIPES

By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 24, 2019

KABUL, Afghanistan — More civilians were killed in the war in Afghanistan last year than any other year since records began, with child deaths alone also reaching an all-time high, partly due to a spike in U.S. airstrikes, the United Nations said in a report on Sunday.

The findings added to a litany of discouraging data on the U.S.’s longest war and were released a day before American and Taliban officials were to resume direct talks in Qatar, which could lead to the U.S. pulling out of the 17-year conflict.

The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documented more than 3,800 civilian deaths in the country last year, including about 930 children, both annual records. Nearly 11,000 civilian casualties in total were recorded throughout the year.

UNAMA attributed most of the casualties to anti-government forces, predominantly the Taliban and local Islamic State affiliate, with pro-government forces being blamed for about a quarter of the deaths and injuries.

However, pro-government forces — which include the U.S. military — were shown to have killed more Afghan children last year than their adversaries, which UNAMA said was largely due to U.S. airstrikes.

Responding to Sunday’s report, the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan said “all feasible precautions” are taken to limit civilian casualties and that it investigates all allegations. According to NATO investigations, airstrikes by foreign forces caused 117 civilian casualties last year, including 62 deaths. That’s about a fifth of the U.N.’s tally.

In a statement of its own, the Taliban called UNAMA’s report “one-sided.”

Despite the growing number of civilian casualties, the report did acknowledge efforts by U.S. and Afghans forces and the Taliban to protect civilians.

A ramped-up bombing campaign has been part of the Trump administration’s strategy for pushing the Taliban to the negotiating table. The U.S. dropped more munitions over the country last year than the previous three years combined, according to Air Force data.

Airstrikes by Afghan and international forces killed approximately the same number of Afghan civilians in 2018 as the collective total of the previous three years, the UNAMA report revealed.

UNAMA said it was “particularly concerned by the number of civilian deaths from aerial operations” last year, adding that international military forces — namely the U.S., which is the only foreign country officially conducting strikes in Afghanistan — were responsible for the majority of civilian casualties caused by such operations.

The increase in airstrikes and a spike in militant suicide attacks were both described by the mission as key factors contributing to an 11-percent increase in civilian deaths and a 5-percent increase in overall civilian casualties last year compared to the year before.

“2018 witnessed the highest number of civilian casualties ever recorded from suicide attacks and aerial operations,” the report said.

Militants’ use of improvised explosive devices in both suicide and non-suicide attacks remained the leading cause of civilian casualties, accounting for more than 40 percent of the total, UNAMA said.

“The conflict in Afghanistan continues to kill far too many civilians and has caused long-lasting suffering, both physical and psychological, to countless others,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said. “The fact that the number of children killed this year is the highest on record is particularly shocking.”

UNAMA began systematically documenting civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2009. The mission routinely attributes more casualties to U.S. forces than the Pentagon does, citing different methodology. The U.S. military regularly disputes UNAMA’s data.

The latest findings followed an annual report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which named Afghanistan as the deadliest conflict in the world, killing as many people last year — both civilians and combatants — as the wars in Syria and Yemen combined.

Deaths among Afghan security forces helped contribute to the lowest number of soldiers and police recorded in the country since 2015, when foreign forces shifted from a combat mission to one focused on training and advising their Afghan counterparts. That number was published in a quarterly report last month by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which also showed that Kabul controlled just more than half of Afghanistan’s 400 districts, a slight drop from the previous quarter.

The discouraging data has been described by analysts as a boon for the Taliban as steps toward a negotiated peace settlement continue.

U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representatives are due to continue direct talks in Qatar’s capital Doha on Monday, following discussions there last month during which Khalilzad said the sides had reached an agreement in principle on terms for the withdrawal of U.S. forces and a pledge by the Taliban not to harbor terrorist groups.

In his State of the Union address earlier this month, President Donald Trump said: “Great countries do not fight endless wars.” And Trump’s apparent eagerness to withdraw American troops has led to speculation among some Afghans and analysts that the deal sought by Washington may be primarily focused on bringing the U.S. participation in the war to an end, and less so on ensuring conditions for a lasting peace.

Others are more optimistic.

UNAMA head Tadamichi Yamamoto said the best way to stop the killing and maiming of civilians in Afghanistan is to stop the fighting.

“That is why there is all the more need now to use all our efforts to bring about peace,” Yamamoto said. “I urge all parties to seize every opportunity to do so.”

wellman.phillip@stripes.com

Twitter: @pwwellman

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