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Afghan civilian casualties down by 15% in 2020, UN says

Afghan police arrive at the site of an attack at Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan, on November 2, 2020. Picture by Rahmat Gul, AP
Rahim Faiez, Associated Press Reporter

The number of civilians killed and wounded in violence across war-weary Afghanistan fell by 15% last year compared with 2019, according to a United Nations report.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the UN Human Rights Office attributed the drop in civilian casualties in part to an apparent tactical change by insurgents to targeted killings, fewer suicide bombings and a stark drop in casualties attributed to international military forces.

Still, Afghanistan remains among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian. A distressing feature of the conflict remains the disproportionate impact on Afghan women and children, who make up 43% of all casualties.

The attacks targeting civilians include assaults on members of the judiciary, media and activists. Also targeted have been religious minorities, especially the Shiite Muslim population, most of whom also belong to the Hazara ethnic group, and the Sikh population.

The overall number of civilian casualties in 2020 of 8,820 — including 3,035 killed and 5,785 others wounded — fell below 10,000 for the first time since 2013. Last year’s total was 15% down compared with 2019, the UN said.

Afghanistan has seen a nationwide spike in bombings, targeted killings and violence on the battlefield as peace negotiations in Qatar between the Taliban and the Afghan government have stalled. It has been more than a month since the sides last met to discuss how to proceed.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden’s administration is reviewing the US-Taliban peace deal that was signed on February 29 last year. As part of it, Washington committed to a May 1 withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan.

Afghanistan peace negotiations between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar began on September 12 but have failed to alleviate the scale of civilian harm — a key indicator of violence levels. Instead, there was an escalation of violence in the fourth quarter of the year.

In October, civilian casualties were the highest of any month in 2020.

“2020 could have been the year of peace in Afghanistan. Instead, thousands of Afghan civilians perished due to the conflict,” said Deborah Lyons, the UN’s special representative of the secretary-general for Afghanistan.

“This important report has the overriding objective of providing the parties responsible with the facts, and recommendations, so they take immediate and concrete steps to protect civilians. I urge them not to squander a single day in taking the urgent steps to avoid more suffering.”

The report blamed 62% of casualties on anti-government forces in 2020 with the Taliban responsible for most of them – 46% – and the so-called Islamic State group responsible for 8%.

Pro-government forces caused a quarter of all civilian casualties, some 2,231, the report said. That includes 841 killed and 1,390 wounded, a decrease of 24% from 2019, with the Afghan national security forces causing most of these – 22% of the total.

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