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UN report documents highest Afghan civilian casualties in a single month since records began

Aerial operations caused more civilian deaths than any other event type this year, and a 71% increase over the same period in 2018

An “unprecedented” number of civilians were killed or injured in Afghanistan between July and September this year, the United Nations said in a new report released on Thursday, October 17, calling the violence “totally unacceptable.”

The quarterly report, which also charts violence throughout 2019 so far, underscores how “Afghans have been exposed to extreme levels of violence for many years” despite promises by all sides to “prevent and mitigate harm to civilians.”

The figures – 1,174 deaths and 3,139 injured from July 1 until September 30 – represent the largest number of civilian casualties the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has recorded in a single quarter since it began systematically documenting civilian casualties in 2009, and a 42% increase over the same period last year.

July also saw the most civilians killed and injured in a single month since UNAMA records began in 2009.

“Civilian casualties are totally unacceptable,” said the U.N.’s special representative in Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, adding they demonstrate the importance of talks leading to a ceasefire and a permanent political settlement.

“The impact of Afghanistan’s conflict on civilians is appalling,” said Fiona Frazer, UNAMA’s Human Rights Chief.

Afghanistan violence surges in Q3 2019

The U.N. laid most of the blame for the spike squarely at the feet of “anti-government elements” such as the Taliban, who have been carrying out a bloody insurgency in Afghanistan for more than 18 years.

The first six months of 2019 had seen casualties drop slightly compared to previous years, but violence has surged so far in the third quarter that it dragged the overall total for the year back on par with the bloodiest since NATO withdrew its combat forces at the end of 2014.

The U.N. recorded 8,239 civilian casualties in total in the first nine months of 2019 – 2,563 killed and 5,676 injured.

Anti-government elements were responsible for 62% of all civilian casualties in the nine-month period, a 3% decrease compared to 2018.

UNAMA attributed 46% of all civilian casualties to the Taliban, and 12% to Islamic State Khorasan Province.

Women and children accounted for 41% of civilian casualties, including 631 children killed and 1,830 injured.

Suicide and non-suicide improvised explosive device attacks caused 42% of all casualties, although the total number of casualties caused by IEDs fell slightly year-on-year.

But UNAMA also documented an alarming jump in casualties caused by pro-government forces since the year began, a total of 1,149 killed and 1,199 injured, representing 28% of all casualties, and an increase of 26% from the same period last year.

UNAMA attributed 682 civilian casualties or 8% of the total to international military forces, a more than four-fold increase on 2018.

US Air Force F-16 in Afghanistan
A US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon takes-off from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, March 23, 2018. Image: US Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Gregory Brook

Airstrikes kill more civilians than any other event type

Aerial operations killed more civilians – 579 – than any other event type during the nine-month period, and marked a 71% increase in civilian deaths in airstrikes over the same period in 2018.

Airstrikes were responsible for 11% of the total number of civilian casualties. The 885 casualties recorded represents a 28% year-on-year increase.

The report said that UNAMA has recorded “a continual increase in civilian casualties from aerial operations since 2014, with International Military Forces responsible for the majority of civilian casualties from this incident type since 2018.”

Afghanistan civilian casualties from aerial operations

UNAMA attributed 74% of civilian airstrike casualties to international forces, 19% to the Afghan Air Force, and could not establish attribution for the remaining 7%.

The United States is the only international air force known to conduct airstrikes in Afghanistan.

The report highlighted two incidents.

It said that during a Special Forces operation against a high-value target in Musa Qala district on September 22, U.S. Forces Afghanistan conducted airstrikes targeting Taliban and al-Qaeda positions. At the same time, two vehicles returning from a wedding were hit by airstrikes, and UNAMA has so far verified the death of 15 civilians including six children, and a further 17 people injured. USFOR-A has launched an investigation.

Three days earlier, USFOR-A aircraft targeted individuals in a wooded area controlled by ISKP, killing 19 civilians and injuring 11. The men were all civilian labourers working in the pine nut industry, and provincial government authorities, including Afghan national security forces, had been given written notice in writing of the labourers’ intent to work in ISKP territory. ISKP also agreed to their access.

“Shortly after the incident, USFOR-A paid compensation to the families of eight of the individuals killed, acknowledging they were civilian,” UNAMA said.

“UNAMA has in recent years consistently raised its concern about the increasing numbers of civilian casualties arising from airstrikes, and the need for continuous review of targeting criteria and pre-engagement precautionary measures,” the report said, cautioning that “reliance on technology without sufficient corroborating human intelligence could increase the chances of causing unintended harm to civilians.”

US airstrikes on Afghanistan drug factories killed at least 30 civilians, UNAMA finds


With reporting from AFP

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