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Afghan civilian casualties hit record high amid US withdrawal

The Hill
The Hill
 2021-07-26
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Civilian casualties in Afghanistan hit record highs in the first half of the year as U.S. forces withdrew and the Taliban stepped up its offensive, a United Nations monitor said Monday.

In May and June alone, when the Taliban began its surge of attacks, 783 civilians were killed and 1,609 were injured, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a report released Monday. It's the highest number of civilian casualties for those two months since the mission began its tracking in 2009.

In just those two months, the civilian casualties neared the total from January through April, when 876 civilians were killed and 1,915 were injured, the mission added.

“I implore the Taliban and Afghan leaders to take heed of the conflict's grim and chilling trajectory and its devastating impact on civilians,” Deborah Lyons, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan, said in a statement. “The report provides a clear warning that unprecedented numbers of Afghan civilians will perish and be maimed this year if the increasing violence is not stemmed.”

The Taliban has been racking up battlefield wins as U.S. troops near their final withdrawal from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years.

The Taliban now controls about half of the district centers in Afghanistan, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said last week as he acknowledged the insurgents appear to have “strategic momentum.”

Amid the Taliban gains, the United States has stepped up airstrikes to help Afghan forces even as the withdrawal stays on track to end by President Biden ’s Aug. 31 deadline, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie said Sunday.

"The United States has increased airstrikes in the support of Afghan forces over the last several days, and we are prepared to continue this heightened level of support in the coming weeks if the Taliban continue their attacks,” McKenzie told reporters in Kabul.

More than 60 percent of civilian casualties documented by the U.N. mission were caused by “anti-government elements,” which includes the Taliban, the Afghan branch of ISIS and other “undetermined” groups, according to the report.

The leading cause of civilian casualties was improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used by the Taliban and ISIS, according to the report. Pressure-plate IEDs used mostly by the Taliban have killed and injured 42 percent more civilians this year than the same period last year.

Another 33 percent of the civilian casualties were people caught in ground fighting between the Taliban and Afghan forces, the report said.

The number of women and girls killed and injured nearly doubled this year compared to last, the report added.

Meanwhile, airstrikes by the Afghan air force accounted for 8 percent of the civilian casualties.

As U.S. and international forces have withdrawn, the Afghan air force has taken on more of the share of airstrikes, with U.S. officials touting the air force as the Afghan government’s main advantage against the Taliban. But the Afghan air force has a poor record of avoiding civilian casualties.

Monday’s U.N. report noted efforts the air force has taken to improve, including deciding against striking 266 targets because of proximity to civilians.

Still, the mission said it “remains very concerned that the number of civilian casualties from Afghan Air Force airstrikes more than doubled compared with the same period in 2020.”

“Amidst the significant increase in airstrikes conducted by the Afghan Air Force, UNAMA urges the Afghan National Army and its Air Force to review targeting practices and ensure that adequate measures are in place for the investigation of incidents causing harm to civilians, with the aim of learning lessons from such incidents to mitigate harm in future operations and of holding accountable those responsible,” the report said.

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