Civilian Casualties Spike as Afghan Forces Take Lead

Afghan National Army soldiers stand at attention during their graduation ceremony at the Kabul Military Training Center in Kabul, Afghanistan, on June 1, 2014. Massoud Hossaini/AP
Afghan National Army soldiers stand at attention during their graduation ceremony at the Kabul Military Training Center in Kabul, Afghanistan, on June 1, 2014. Massoud Hossaini/AP

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Civilian casualties in Afghanistan sharply increased last year as government forces fought increasingly deadly battles with insurgents across the country, the United Nations reported Wednesday.

More than 3,600 noncombatants died and at least 6,849 were injured in 2014, the final year of the NATO-led coalition’s combat mission in Afghanistan, the U.N. said in its annual report.

Most of casualties were attributed to insurgent groups. In 2013, The UN documented a total of 8,615 civilian casualties with 2,959 civilian deaths and 5,656 injured.

Western leaders have declared an end to the combat mission in Afghanistan, but the casualty count in 2014 is the highest since the U.N. began counting in 2009, an indicator that the war is far from over.

"In communities across Afghanistan, increased ground fighting among parties to the conflict and more [improvised explosive device] attacks exacted a heavy toll on Afghan civilians," the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Nicholas Haysom, said in a statement. "Rising civilian deaths and injuries in 2014 attests to a failure to fulfil commitments to protect Afghan civilians from harm."

For the first time since 2009, more civilians were killed or injured in ground battles than from IEDs or because of other causes, the report found. Improvised bombs, which often indiscriminately target noncombatants, had traditionally been the top cause of civilian casualties.

But with Afghan forces now locked in significant fighting across the country, more families are being caught in the crossfire, the U.N. says.

As in past years, the U.N. said most casualties in 2014 were caused by anti-government forces such as the Taliban. Seventy-two percent of all casualties were attributed to insurgent groups, 12 percent to government forces, and 2 percent to international military troops. Ten percent occurred during ground engagements when the cause could not be determined, and the remaining casualties were caused by unexploded ordnance or crossborder shelling.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid rejected the U.N. report as government "propaganda" and said the findings are based on biased data.

"These figures and facts are not accurate because during the preparation of report they depend on information from the government and the Americans," he told Stars and Stripes by phone. "We reject this report. There have been many casualties during the night raids and bombardments by the foreigners and government troops."

The Afghan Ministry of Defense disputed the 12 percent figure as too high, but emphasized that "enemies of Afghanistan" were responsible for most of the casualties.

"Since the foreign forces withdrew attacks have increased, so that’s why there were more activities," said MOD deputy spokesman Dawlat Waziri. "We have tried our best to reduce civilian casualties during operations."

The U.N. found that 43 percent of the 3,605 documented civilian casualties that occurred during ground fighting were attributed to insurgent groups, while Afghan security forces accounted for 26 percent. Insurgents killed and injured at least 1,551 people during ground fighting, a 51 percent increase over 2013.

The increased operations by Afghan forces, however, exacted a heavy price from the civilians the operations are designed to protect. Casualties caused by Afghan forces during ground engagements rose 141 percent in 2014 to more than 900.

Overall, the number of Afghans killed or injured by government forces was up 51 percent compared with the year before, despite measures to try to curb civilian deaths, U.N. investigators reported, adding that they had observed a "significant" increase in human rights abuses by pro-government militias.

Civilian casualties attributed to coalition forces have dropped significantly as almost all combat troops have been withdrawn and air support has been curtailed. But international military officials defended Afghan forces, most of whom are products of training by foreign advisers.

"Afghan Security Forces also take great measures to reduce the possibility of civilian casualties," officials with the NATO-led Resolute Support mission said in a statement. "By contrast, the Taliban and other Anti-Government Elements (AGEs) continue to display total disregard for human life. Their behaviour stands in stark contrast to the Afghan government’s efforts to promote peace and security."

The U.N. report documented an increase in "summary executions, beheadings, amputations of body parts, beatings, lashings and illegal detention" inflicted by the Taliban and other groups for violations of Sharia law, spying, or other infractions.

"The appalling levels of violence in Afghanistan in 2014 should not be repeated in 2015," Haysom said. "Parties to the conflict, in particular the Anti-Government Elements, should do everything in their power to prevent civilian casualties in line with their obligations under international humanitarian law."

But with all sides far from any peaceful resolution, Afghan civilians caught in the middle will likely face years of continued violence.

-- Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

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