Afghanistan’s civilian casualties rise following U.S.-Taliban peace deal

Since the signing of a peace deal between the United States and the Taliban, civilian casualties in Afghanistan have increased compared with previous years, according to a new U.N. report.

The mounting civilian toll belies U.S. expectations that the peace deal would lead to reduced violence in the war-ravaged country. Civilian casualties caused by Afghan government and Taliban attacks in April increased by more than a quarter when compared with the same month last year, according to the report by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

That increase was steeper when it came to civilian casualties caused by Afghan government operations. Those operations caused 172 civilian casualties, 38 percent more than the previous year. Taliban attacks caused 208 civilian casualties, 25 percent more than in April 2019. The report is a provisional tally and did not break down the numbers of dead and injured.

The Taliban rejected the U.N. report, tweeting that it was based on “propaganda.”

Afghanistan’s National Security Council said in a statement, “We note the provisional report by UNAMA and underscore that Government’s findings from the field demonstrate that the Taliban and their aligned terrorist groups are responsible for the vast majority of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan.”

The council added, “These heinous attacks occurred after the U.S.-Taliban deal in Doha and the Taliban’s commitment to decrease violence, because the Taliban see terrorism as the only path.”

Violence in Afghanistan began to spike almost immediately after the peace deal was signed at the end of February. The deal called for a halt to offensive operations by the United States and the Taliban against each other.

Afghan forces largely went on the defensive until last week, when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called on his forces to resume an offensive footing after a brutal attack on a Kabul maternity ward. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but Afghan officials blame the Taliban, while U.S. officials say the Islamic State is to blame.

The United Nations and human rights groups warn that if the violence continues, civilian casualties are likely to increase.

Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said she is concerned that as all parties to the conflict become more desperate, “less attention will be paid [on all sides] to the measures needed to prevent civilian casualties.”

And on the part of the Afghan government, that could be exacerbated as U.S. forces withdraw. “While we criticize the United States for not investigating” and not taking enough measures to prevent civilian casualties, the Afghan government has performed worse, she said.

Off the battlefield, negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban have stalled over a controversial prisoner swap. Afghan commanders on the ground say they believe the increase in Taliban attacks is aimed at pressuring the Afghan government to release more prisoners.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, is in Doha, the Qatar capital, and will soon travel to Kabul to attempt to resuscitate talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Tensions between U.S. officials and Taliban leaders have also cast doubt on the peace deal. The U.S. military command in Kabul claims the deal included an oral agreement to reduce violence by 80 percent, and Taliban officials claim that U.S. airstrikes in defense of Afghan forces are a violation.

While U.S. officials were careful to note that the agreement was not expected to reduce violence to zero, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said in March he expected the period of reduced violence that preceded the deal’s signing to continue and for violence to “taper off” further.

Overnight and into Tuesday morning, Taliban fighters launched a fierce assault on the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. The Afghan Defense Ministry said that 40 Taliban fighters were killed in the clashes and that the Afghan air force carried out airstrikes. Local officials said the number of civilian casualties is not yet clear.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with department policy, said American forces had “not conducted any defensive strikes in support of Afghan forces in Kunduz in the last 24 hours.”

The city is expected to be a key barometer of the ability of Afghan forces to defend territory with less U.S. support. Over the past five years, Kunduz has repeatedly been overrun by Taliban fighters who were repelled only by intense U.S. air support of Afghan ground forces.

Afghanistan saw periods of record-high civilian casualties in 2019 as peace talks gained traction and both sides sought to translate battlefield victories into negotiating-table leverage. More than 3,400 civilians were killed in 2019 and nearly 7,000 injured, according to the United Nations.