The U.N. mission in Afghanistan on Monday reported a worrying increase in the number of civilians killed and wounded in the country this year, making it likely that 2016 will be the worst year since 2009, when the organization began keeping track.
According to the annual midyear report by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), 1,601 Afghans have been killed and 3,655 wounded so far this year. A full third of those casualties are children, representing an 18 percent increase over last year. Overall, there was a 4.4 percent increase in civilian casualties.
The numbers in the report are probably not comprehensive. With the Taliban gaining ground in southern Afghanistan, monitoring the effect of the war on civilians there is presumably increasingly difficult. On the other hand, UNAMA doesn't release its data set, so it isn't possible to know for certain whether that assumption is true.
Of the available data on casualties, almost two-thirds were attributed to "antigovernment elements" and a quarter to "pro-government forces." This represents a major increase in casualties caused by the Afghan and U.S. militaries. Part of that spike is explained by the doubling in civilian casualties caused by airstrikes, though those strikes account for only a small portion of the total. Fifty casualties were attributed to U.S. airstrikes in particular.
Almost 40 percent of civilian casualties this year were caused by "ground engagement." A haunting testimony included in the UNAMA report gives a sense of what that looks like. It comes from an unnamed man in the southern province of Kandahar.
“It was in the evening time and my wife, children, and mother were at home. Taliban attacked an Afghan National Army checkpoint and they both started firing mortars and rockets at each other. A mortar round exploded in my house, killing my 8-year-old daughter and injuring my 7-year-old son and my wife. We were hysterical, running from one side of the house to another thinking that another mortar round would hit the house. Since that moment, I have no life any more. My mother, brothers, sisters and relatives buried my daughter and took the injured to hospital for treatment. I am in sorrow for the death of my daughter and the injury of my beloved son and wife. Now I cannot afford their treatment or to feed my mother and the rest of my family.”
Another major cause of casualties are improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The report notes that 85 percent of those killed or wounded by IEDs this year are children.
“Platitudes not backed by meaningful action ring hollow over time,” said Tadamichi Yamamoto, the United Nations' top official in Afghanistan. “History and the long memory of the Afghan people will judge leaders of all parties to this conflict not by their well-meaning words, but by their conduct.”