Afghan civilian deaths in the first six months of the year reached an all-time high, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in its latest report on Sunday, and it recorded a marked rise in the number of casualties caused by ISIS.
Although the overall number of civilians killed or injured between January and June fell by 3 per cent from the same period last year, the number of deaths rose by 1 per cent to 1,692, according to the UN agency, which has been compiling casualty figures in Afghanistan since 2009.
While hopes remain that the Taliban will enter negotiations to end their long-running insurgency, boosted by the militants declaring their first ceasefire for Eid last month, the expansion of the ISIS presence has raised concerns.
The Unama report showed a substantial increase in casualties caused by suicide and complex attacks, the majority of which were attributed to ISIS. The agency defines complex attacks as assaults against targets that involve a number of attackers and typically last for hours.
Suicide and complex attacks accounted for 95 per cent of the 993 civilian casualties in Kabul from January to June this year, and 52 per cent of those were linked to ISIS.
The UN report said there was an increase in the number of attacks claimed by ISIS. The regional branch of the extremist group, which calls itself Islamic State Khorasan Province, claimed 15 attacks in the first half of 2018, resulting in 595 civilian casualties. In the same period last year, ISIS claimed seven attacks, with 183 casualties.
The eastern province of Nangarhar was the worst hit by violence in the past six months, with a 142 per cent increase in civilian casualties. Unama recorded 304 deaths and 607 injuries, almost half of which were from attacks credited to ISIS.
“In Nangarhar province alone, through the month of June, the mission recorded 13 related incidents attributed to Daesh/ISKP,” the report said.
While the growing menace from ISIS is felt across the country, it has been far more grim for residents of Nangarhar. “People are afraid of ISIS more than they have been of Taliban,” said Mohammad Ilyas Kamavi, a political activist from the province.
He said he had seen ISIS fighters in Nangarhar who did not speak in the local dialects or accents. “Taliban has existed in Nangarhar for many years and a lot of Taliban are locals. However, ISIS is new and comes from Pakistan and is more brutal, because when you want to replace new ideology with old one, particularly to spread terror, you have to be more cruel than others,” he said.
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Mr Kamavi said ISIS operated freely in his home town in Kama district. “They are operating openly and have opened madrasas to try to influence people, especially children. The locals have complained to the government several times, but no action has been taken against them so far.”
He said the government and international forces were not doing enough to check the growth of ISIS. “They do take action against the terror groups in the region, but not in a way to stop them permanently. We have witnessed how the areas that are cleared by the government fall back into the hands of ISIS in no time,” he said.
“If the government is serious about finishing them, they need to carry regular operations against them,” he said.
Unama also noted 341 civilian casualties from election-related violence since April 14, when voter registration began for the much-delayed parliamentary polls scheduled for October.
“During the voter registration process from April to June 2018, Unama documented 39 attacks targeting voter registration centres at schools resulting in child casualties, school closures and reduced attendance, impacting children’s safety and right to education,” the report said.
There has been no let-up in the number of casualties in July, with more than 20 people killed in two attacks in Jalalabad last week and at least 10 killed or wounded in a bombing at a government ministry in Kabul on Sunday.
Members of the Nato-led Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, which has been training, assisting and funding Afghan security forces, reaffirmed their support at the alliance's summit in Brussels last week.
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said the mission's members and partners had pledged to continue with both training and funding. "Our current commitment to funding is to 2020. Now we decided to have funding to 2024," he said.