United Nations: Afghan Civilian Casualties Down 30% in 2020, Lowest in 8 Years

Fighters with Afghanistan's Taliban militia stand with their weapons in Ahmad Aba district on the outskirts of Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, on July 18, 2017.
FARIDULLAH AHMADZAI/AFP/GETTY

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) revealed Tuesday it had tallied 30 percent fewer civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the first nine months of 2020 compared to the previous year.

The agency recorded a similar (32 percent) drop in the number of casualties attributable to the Taliban and a significant increase in the number attributable to the Afghan military. Casualties caused by Afghan Air Force airstrikes, UNAMA noted, increased 70 percent.

The drop in overall civilian casualties make the number the lowest it has been in eight years, the agency noted.

Source: UNAMA

This year saw the launch of a new round of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, brokered by the administration of President Donald Trump and fueled by the president’s stated desire to withdraw all American troops from the nearly two-decade-old war. While the Taliban has appeared more amenable to negotiating with Washington, it continues its longstanding tradition of denying the legitimacy of the Afghan government. The Taliban considers itself the only true government of Afghanistan, which it identifies as an “Islamic emirate.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opened what appeared to be a successful first round of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan-U.S. coalition in September, which has led to a decline in Taliban action against U.S. and NATO troops.

The UNAMA figures showed a diminished number of civilian casualties despite a spike in violence during Ramadan this year, a time when jihadis tend to engage in more violence in the hopes of receiving more rewards in the afterlife due to the perceived holy nature of the month. The increase in violence globally, primarily fueled by violence in Afghanistan, occurred despite global government lockdowns and other measures to limit movement in the face of the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.

“The Mission’s latest quarterly report documented 5,939 civilian casualties (2,117 killed and 3,822 injured) from 1 January to 30 September 2020,” UNAMA noted on Tuesday. “High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian.”

UNAMA observed that much of the decrease in civilian casualties was the product of the Taliban acting with more precision against its military targets. Civilian deaths at the hands of the Taliban increase six percent, but casualties in total dropped 32 percent, the agency noted, “mainly due to a reduction in the number of civilians injured by suicide attacks and ground engagements, though this was partially offset by an increased number of civilian casualties from targeted killings and illegal, indiscriminate pressure-plate improvised explosives devices (IEDs).”

Diminished civilian casualties at the hands of the Islamic State’s local branch, Khorasan Province, also appeared to affect the outcome this year. UNAMA noted that ISIS activity had dropped in general, leading to a drop in violence against civilians.

The U.N. agency endeavored not to praise Trump administration-led talks for the startling decrease in civilian violence.

“The Mission notes with concern that in the period from 12 September – the start of the Afghanistan peace negotiations between the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar – to 30 September, there was no reduction in the documented number of civilian casualties caused by parties involved in the talks in comparison to previous weeks,” the report noted.

Deborah Lyons, Secretary-General Antonio Gutérres’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, did allow that peace talks may result in a stable decline in violence towards civilians, but that they “need some time to help deliver peace.”

Jihadist attacks around the world during Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam, increased about 30 percent in 2020 compared to Ramadan 2019, despite many Islamic countries limiting citizens’ movements in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Afghan Taliban was the deadliest jihadist group in the world during this year’s Ramadan, killing a documented 423 people.

The Afghan government warned this month that violence in the country appears to have increased since the start of peace talks in September.

“The talks are underway, the steps which are taken are preliminary and historic steps, but the Afghan people expect these talks to be accelerated and violence to be reduced,” Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, said, “because in the view of current circumstances, violence has not only [not] reduced, but it has increased compared to the past.”

As NATO troops in the country have documented a decrease in attacks towards them, and UNAMA has now confirmed an unusually low number of civilian casualties this year, Abdullah’s remarks indicate that the Taliban has intensified its focus on attacking Afghan troops.

The United States has been at war in Afghanistan since the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks, making the Afghan war one of the longest in human history. President Trump has expressed a desire to eliminate the U.S. troop presence there Christmas and let the Taliban and Afghan government resolve their internal problems without U.S. intervention, a goal the Taliban appears to tentatively approve of.

Pressure within the country to end the war has also increased. On Sunday, a group of 2,000 Islamic scholars gathered in Kabul calling for an end to violence against Afghan citizens, calling the war in general “illegitimate.”

“Anyone who does something that leads to the shedding of Muslim blood, he will go to hell,” one cleric, Abdul Salam Abid, said at the event.

“We have one youth killed every day; we have one widow every day. We call on both sides to stop the war,” Mohammad Nabi Ayubi, another scholar participating, said.

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