US exit spells Afghanistan’s deadliest year on record, UN says

Report shows 'grim and chilling trajectory' for civilian death rate as Taliban make blitzkrieg gains

Afghan men try to identify bodies at a hospital after a deadly bomb explosion near a school west of Kabul.  AP
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The UN on Monday said Afghan civilians have been dying in record numbers since international forces quickened their withdrawal from Afghanistan in May and the Taliban upped their military offensives against the government.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama) said 1,659 Afghan civilians were killed and 3,254 were injured in the first six months of 2021 — a 47 per cent increase on the same period last year.

At the current trajectory, this year will be Afghanistan’s deadliest since record-keeping began a decade ago, the mission’s report, “Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Midyear Update”, showed.

“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,” said Deborah Lyons, the UN envoy to Afghanistan.

Civilian deaths ratcheted up after the US and Nato dramatically accelerated the withdrawal of forces from the country in May, after US President Joe Biden decided to end America’s longest war and leave Afghans to chart their own future.

Taliban offensives have led to the group capturing half of Afghanistan's districts and border crossings, as well as encircling, but not gaining control over, several provincial capitals. Fighting largely takes place in the rugged countryside.

Hundreds of Afghan soldiers and officials have fled the country in recent weeks amid dizzying Taliban advances in border regions. About 50 Afghan soldiers fled to Pakistan after losing ground to the insurgents, the Pakistani army said on Monday.

Negotiators from the Afghan government and the Taliban have met in Qatar's capital, Doha, in recent weeks, but diplomats say there have been few signs of substantive progress since peace talks began in September.

“I implore the Taliban and Afghan leaders to take heed of the conflict's grim and chilling trajectory and its devastating impact on civilians,” Ms Lyons added.

Unama blamed the Taliban, the extremist group ISIS and other anti-government forces for 64 per cent of civilian casualties. Afghan and pro-government forces were responsible for a quarter of the deaths, while others could not be determined.

In a statement, a Taliban spokesman said the group had “not deliberately killed civilians anywhere or carried out attacks that could have resulted in civilian casualties”.

Chris Nyamandi, country director for Save the Children, a charity, said too many youngsters were caught up in the fighting. UNAMA's report found that 468 children were killed and 1,214 were injured in the first half of the year.

“The record number of child casualties we’ve seen this year could not be any clearer indication that the recent escalation of the conflict is already having a catastrophic impact on children," said Mr Nyamandi.

"As well as children being injured or killed in crossfires, we’ve also seen the destruction of schools and health facilities. This should be a wake-up call to the international community to keep investing in Afghanistan’s future before any progress that has been made here is undone."

The campaign group Human Rights Watch last week presented “growing evidence” of Taliban atrocities against civilians in areas they had captured, including in Spin Boldak, the town near the border with Pakistan they took earlier this month.

Updated: July 26, 2021, 5:34 PM