KABUL — In the second piece of alarming news in a just a week for the anti-Taliban fight in Afghanistan, the United Nations reported Monday that nearly 3,500 Afghan civilians died and more than 7,900 were wounded in the conflict last year — the highest tolls since U.N. officials began recording civilian casualties in 2009.
The report said the figures represented a 3 percent increase over 2015 and a 24 percent rise in the number of children, who accounted for 923 of the dead and 2,589 of those wounded. It said that two-thirds of the casualties were inflicted by insurgents but that airstrikes by Afghan and NATO forces accounted for 250 deaths and 340 injuries, nearly double the rate for the previous year.
The U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, called on “all parties to the conflict” to “take immediate concrete measures to protect the ordinary Afghan men, women and children whose lives are being shattered.”
The devastating report came just days after a U.S. government watchdog group reported that the Afghan government continued to lose territorial control to the insurgents in 2016. The report, from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), found that the government maintains full control over 57 percent of Afghan territory, down from 72 percent at the end of 2015.
As civilian deaths hit record numbers last year, SIGAR reported that conflict-related violence also took a high toll on Afghan security forces. It said that 6,785 soldiers and police had been killed and an additional 11,777 wounded through November. In addition, nine U.S. troops died in Afghanistan in 2016.
The spate of alarming reports came after the second full year in which Afghan defense forces have been doing almost all the fighting against the Taliban and other insurgent groups, after the Obama administration pulled out the majority of U.S. forces at the end of 2014.
There are about 8,400 U.S. troops remaining in the country, most as the result of a decision by President Barack Obama last summer to slow down his planned final drawdown amid persistent Taliban aggression. Most of them are limited to advising and supporting Afghan ground forces, but that includes conducting airstrikes that often take a deadly civilian toll.
The U.N. report released Monday said fighting on the ground, especially in civilian areas, was the leading cause of civilian casualties, followed by explosive devices, suicide attacks and deliberate killings. It also noted an increased number of attacks by Islamic State-affiliated fighters, which killed 209 people and wounded 690, mostly in bombings of Shiite communities.
Throughout 2016, the Taliban staged repeated assaults on scattered provincial capitals and cities, especially in Helmand, Kunduz and Nangahar provinces, which forced an estimated 600,000 people to flee their homes at least temporarily. The insurgents also staged suicide attacks in major cities, including Kabul and Kandahar.
At this point, most analysts describe the war as a violent stalemate after nearly 16 years of fighting, with virtually no likelihood that peace talks can be revived in the near future. As the war grinds on and the human toll mounts, officials see little room for hope.
“Yet another record year of civilian suffering,” Yamamoto said in a statement. “Unless all parties to the conflict make serious efforts to review and address the consequences of their operations, the levels of civilian casualties, displacement and other types of human suffering are likely to remain at appallingly high levels.”
The coalition and the Afghan government have yet to comment on the report.
The Taliban insurgents dismissed it as biased and unfair, calling the presence of foreign troops the main source of the war as well as casualties in Afghanistan. “The prime culprits of civilian losses are the occupying forces in the country.”
Constable reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.