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Report shows spike in civilian deaths in Afghanistan as Taliban talks are set to resume this week

Former Taliban and Islamic State militants surrender their weapons during a reconciliation ceremony in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, last week. (Ghulamullah Habibi/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

KABUL — A record-high number of civilians lost their lives last year in Afghanistan, due to a mix of increasing aerial attacks by foreign troops and militant ground attacks, the United Nations reported Sunday, as meetings were set to resume Monday in Qatar between Taliban and U.S. negotiators on a potential settlement to the 17-year conflict.

The report from the U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan said that 3,804 civilians died in 2018, including 930 children. That reflected an 11 percent overall increase from 2017, a year that also saw near-record levels of civilian war-related deaths. In the past decade, it said, more than 32,000 noncombatants have been killed and almost 60,000 injured.

“The level of harm and suffering inflicted on civilians in Afghanistan is deeply disturbing,” Tadamichi Yamamoto, the U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, said in a statement issued with the report. “It is time to put an end to this human misery.”

He said the best way to do that is to “stop the fighting” and use all efforts to “bring about peace. I urge all parties to seize every opportunity to do so.”

The expected resumption of talks Monday comes after a period of confusion, mixed signals and setbacks for the peace process that began four months ago when the Trump administration sent a special envoy, Afghan-born diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, to jump-start the long-stalled negotiations and press for a quick settlement to the war.

The Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, has remained sidelined from the talks because of Taliban insistence that it does not legitimately represent the country. According to Afghan media reports, Khalilzad is now pressing Afghan officials to name a broad, inclusive negotiating team that includes opponents and electoral rivals of Ghani, who plans to seek reelection in July polls.

As scheduled plans for presidential elections have increasingly collided with hopes to hold successful peace talks, a new survey by an Afghan media watchdog group, NAI, reported that 90 percent of Afghans said that successful peace talks were a higher priority than holding elections.

The July polls have already been delayed by three months because of a lack of preparations, and critics of the Ghani government have called for alternative solutions such as a national assembly of elders or an interim government to oversee peace talks and a settlement of the war.

On the other side, efforts by the Taliban to hold additional meetings in Pakistan and to send new representatives to participate in the upcoming Doha meetings have run into difficulties. The Taliban unexpectedly announced two weeks ago that it would hold new peace talks in Pakistan, but the plan, which coincided with a high-profile visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Pakistan, was canceled without explanation.

In addition, there were new media reports over the weekend that key members of the Taliban delegation based in Pakistan were not being granted visas to travel to Qatar, and questions over whether Abdul Ghani Baradar, a former Taliban leader released from Pakistani prison last fall, would be playing a key role in the talks as originally envisioned.

As the jockeying continues over who is to negotiate with whom at the peace table, the violent conflict between Taliban insurgents and Afghan and U.S.-led NATO forces has continued to escalate. Both sides have intensified their attacks in recent months, in an effort to gain the upper hand in negotiations.

Civilians have continued to suffer disproportionately from the upsurge on both sides. The U.N. report said suicide attacks by insurgents and aerial attacks by Afghan and foreign forces had been the main causes of the record level of civilian deaths in 2018. Ground battles between pro- and anti-
government forces were the third-leading cause of civilian casualties.

The report said that 1,185 civilians were killed and 1,427 civilians were injured from operations conducted by pro-government forces, and that their aerial operations caused 492 child casualties, in part because of insurgents hiding among the civilian population. It attributed 24 percent of civilian casualties to pro-government forces and 63 percent to insurgents, including the Taliban and the Islamic State.

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