UN: Nearly 4,000 Afghan civilians killed or wounded by war during first half of 2019
By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 30, 2019
KABUL, Afghanistan — The number of civilians killed or wounded in Afghanistan has dropped significantly during the first half of this year but remains “shocking and unacceptable,” the United Nations said Tuesday.
The U.N. documented 1,366 civilians killed and 2,446 wounded in its latest report on Afghan noncombatant casualties, which examined a period from January to June. Together, the figure was down by over a quarter from the first half of last year and is the lowest number for the period since 2012.
Despite the overall decrease, the U.N. said the numbers remained “shocking and unacceptable.”
Coalition and Afghan government forces were blamed for more civilian deaths — 717 — than insurgents — 531 — for the second successive quarter. In April, the world body documented more deaths caused by pro-government forces for the first time since it began systematically tracking civilian casualties a decade ago.
Airstrikes, most of which were carried out by the U.S. military, were the leading cause of civilian deaths over the six-month reporting period, followed by ground engagements and targeted killings, the U.N. said. The 363 civilians killed by airstrikes was more than double the number reported during the same period in 2018, “highlighting the lethal character of this tactic,” it said.
“UNAMA continues to express concern about the rising level of civilian harm as a result of aerial operations, particularly those conducted in support of Afghan forces on the ground and strikes on civilian structures,” the report said, using an acronym for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan.
The figures correspond with an accelerated U.S. bombing campaign aimed at pressuring the Taliban to negotiate a peace deal. Direct talks between American and Taliban officials aimed at ending the war began months ago in Qatar.
While pro-government forces were most responsible for civilian deaths during the first half of the year, groups like the Taliban and local Islamic State branch were blamed for more overall civilian casualties, which include those wounded, the U.N. said.
However, the 1,968 deaths and injuries attributed to anti-government groups was down 43 percent compared to the same period last year, largely because of fewer deadly suicide blasts. Overall casualties attributed to pro-government forces — 1,397 — rose 31 percent, compared to the same period last year. There were several hundred casualties which could not be attributed to any side in the conflict, the report said.
In Gerishk district in southern Helmand province, where the U.N. documented a deadly airstrike in May, tribal leader Bahram Khan said it was difficult for residents to understand the continuing violence while peace talks continue.
“The only option to get us out of his nightmare of war is to make peace, we don’t want bloodshed anymore,” Khan said. “We have suffered enough.”
The Pentagon and the Taliban regularly dispute the U.N.’s quarterly findings. The U.S. military says it has access to a wider range of forensic data that routinely show fewer civilians wounded or killed by American forces than the U.N. claims.
“These procedures allow United States Forces-Afghanistan to assess with a relatively high degree of confidence the circumstances of each report of civilian casualties,” a recent Defense Department report said.
“Parties to the conflict may give differing explanations for recent trends, each designed to justify their own military tactics,” Richard Bennet, human rights chief for the U.N.’s mission in Afghanistan, said Tuesday.
“The fact remains that only a determined effort to avoid civilian harm, not just by abiding by international humanitarian law but also by reducing the intensity of the fighting, will decrease the suffering of civilian Afghans.”