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Violence in Afghanistan takes high toll on civilians despite the promise of peace talks

Afghan men receive treatment at a hospital July 31 after a bus was hit by a roadside bomb in Herat province. (Jalil Ahmad/Reuters)

KABUL — The long-distance bus, traveling on a remote stretch of highway in western Afghanistan on Wednesday was crammed with families, students and workers. They were headed cross-country on a regularly scheduled 300-mile trip from Herat city to Kandahar city when a sudden, violent blast erupted beneath the bus.

A shock wave and shrapnel hurtled upward from a hidden mine, killing 34 passengers and leaving 17 more burned and bloody. The nearest hospital was many miles away in Herat. Hours later, news photos from there showed a small boy lying in bed, his face pocked with cuts, and a young man sitting up, both arms bandaged and his face badly swollen.

“It was a shameful incident,” said Sakina Hussaini, a member of the Herat provincial council and a volunteer for a group that helps civilian victims of violence. She said Friday that she had attended nine funerals in the past week, including services for six members of one family. The Taliban denied through a spokesman that it was responsible for Wednesday’s bus bombing, but Afghan officials said the insurgents had planted mines along the highway to target military convoys.

The Farah bus massacre was the worst attack during a week that left more than 200 civilians dead across the country as the Taliban and its pro-government adversaries fight to gain leverage in U.S.-Taliban peace talks that began in September. 

Last Sunday, 20 were killed in Kabul in an assault on the political party headquarters of Amrullah Saleh, a vice presidential candidate in elections planned for Sept. 28. The attack also left 50 more people injured. No group has asserted responsibility for the Kabul assault, but Saleh accused the Taliban, which he relentlessly opposes.

Afghan vice presidential candidate narrowly escapes attack that killed 20 people

The heightened warfare on both sides has taken a significant toll on civilians, according to a report released by the U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan. The report said that 3,812 civilians were killed or injured in conflict in the first half of 2019 — with more harmed by Afghan government forces or government-allied foreign forces than by the insurgents.

The overall number of civilian casualties in the first half of 2019 fell 27 percent over the same period in 2018 and was the lowest half-year casualty figure since 2012. But the report also noted a 27 percent increase in the number of civilian deaths from the first quarter to the second quarter of 2019.

The U.N. report said pro-government forces killed 717 Afghans and injured 680 in the first half of 2019, 30 percent more than in the first half of 2018, and that 363 civilians were killed and 156 injured in American or Afghan airstrikes. That casualty figure includes 89 children killed and 61 injured. The report said Taliban and Islamic State forces killed 531 Afghans and injured 1,437, including in targeted attacks on political, tribal and religious figures.

U.N. officials called this level of casualties “shocking and unacceptable” and called on all groups in the conflict to do more to protect civilians. They said that last year was the deadliest for civilians in the 18-year war, with 3,804 killed and 7,000 injured. 

American officials expect to resume talks shortly with the Taliban and hope by September to reach an initial agreement that would include withdrawing several thousand U.S. troops in exchange for Taliban pledges to renounce al-Qaeda, honor a cease-fire and meet soon with Afghan officials to negotiate a future political system and power sharing.

But the violence continued unabated as peace talks inched along. Statistics compiled by the U.S. military showed that since it resumed its offensive in April, the Taliban has killed or injured 1,158 civilians. Incidents included a car bombing in Ghazni province July 7 that killed six people and injured 170 — many of them schoolchildren — while Afghan leaders were holding a first informal meeting with Taliban officials in Qatar.

“The Taliban’s commitment to reduce violence has proven empty,” said U.S. Army Col. Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military mission here. “The Taliban has increased the number of suicide, roadside and car bombings that have left hundreds of innocent Afghans, including scores of women and children, dead and injured.”

On the other side, the high number of casualties caused by Afghan and Afghan-allied foreign forces drew strong expressions of concern from U.N. officials and human rights groups. Leggett rejected the U.N. findings, telling news agencies that U.S. collection of evidence was “more thorough” and accurate.

But Richard Bennett, a human rights official at the U.N. Afghan mission, said that though different “parties to the conflict” may explain casualty trends differently “to justify their own military tactics,” only a determined effort on all sides to reduce “the intensity of the fighting” will reduce civilian suffering. The United Nations called for a goal of “zero” civilian casualties.

Afghan military officials do not release figures on their military casualties, and the U.S. military also does not disclose them, but various Afghan civilian officials have issued broad estimates. President Ashraf Ghani said last year that 40,000 members of the Afghan forces had been killed since he took office in 2014, and his national security adviser said recently that about 50 troops were dying daily.

A quarterly report issued this week by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction provided a detailed look at certain aspects of the recent conflict. It found that the deadliest region of the country is Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold in the south, and that between January and May, most violent incidents including Taliban attacks took place in just five of the country’s 34 provinces: Helmand, Badghis, Faryab, Herat and Farah. 

One member of the Farah provincial council, Dadullah Oane, recounted previous incidents in which buses were blown up, killing and injuring many passengers. He denounced the insurgents as trying to “spread terror and panic among the people.”

Hussaini, after counseling numerous victims and their families this week, called on both sides to refrain from killing innocent people to gain a stronger position in peace talks. 

“Please, Taliban and government, stop targeting civilians,” she said.

 Sharif Hassan contributed to this report. 

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