The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More than 10,000 Afghan civilians died or were injured in 2014, U.N. says

Smoke rises in the sky after a suicide car bomb attack in Kunduz province Feb. 10. Taliban insurgents launched an attack on a police headquarters in northern Afghanistan. (Stringer/Afghanistan/Reuters)

More than 10,000 Afghan civilians caught in conflict died or were injured last year, the largest number since the United Nations started keeping records in the country, the international body said Wednesday.

The increase highlights not only the nation's fragile state, but also the changing shape of the conflict after the formal end of the U.S. combat mission in December.

A sharp rise in ground battles between Taliban insurgents and pro-government forces largely accounted for 3,699 war-related civilian deaths and 6,849 injuries — a 22 percent increase over 2013, the United Nations said in a wide-ranging report released Wednesday.

For the first time since 2009, when record-keeping began, face-to-face ground engagements killed or injured more Afghan civilians than roadside bombs, suicide attacks or any other tactic, registering an increase of 54 percent. Casualties among women and children also reached new highs.

The rise in civilian casualties illuminates the extent to which Afghanistan’s war has been transformed in the wake of the departure of most U.S. and international troops. Afghanistan’s security forces can no longer rely on U.S. airstrikes and other high-tech weaponry and must engage in more head-on battles with Taliban and other insurgents.

Both sides have deployed mortars, rockets and grenades, “sometimes indiscriminately in civilian-populated areas,” the United Nations said. “Rising civilian deaths and injuries in 2014 attests to a failure to fulfill commitments to protect Afghan civilians from harm,” Nicholas Haysom, the U.N. secretary general’s special representative for Afghanistan, said in a statement. The report was released by the U.N. Assistance Mission for Afghanistan, of which Haysom is the head.

Taliban and other militants were responsible for more than two-thirds of all the civilian casualties, the U.N. report said. Last year also saw more Afghan security forces killed or injured than in any year since the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001.

Suicide attacks by insurgents killed 371 civilians and injured 1,211, marking a 28 percent increase over 2013. It was the third-leading cause of civilian casualties after the ground battles and roadside bombs. December was last year’s deadliest month, with the United Nations recording 511 deaths.

Violence unleashed by the Taliban coincided with the waning days of the U.S.-led international combat mission. Targeted killings accounted for 11 percent of all civilian casualties, down 5 percent from 2013 — making it a rare statistic that declined.

Pro-government forces were responsible for 1,478 civilian casualties, a 51 percent increase from 2013. Most occurred during ground operations by Afghan security forces. Pro-government militias were behind 53 deaths and 49 injuries, up 85 percent from 2013, highlighting a key challenge for President Ashraf Ghani, who has promised to disarm such irregular forces.

The United Nations noted the significant rise in human rights abuses against civilians by these militias and urged the government to disband them.

Since 2009, a total of 17,774 civilian deaths and 29,971 injuries have been recorded in Afghanistan, the world body said.