The Pulse | Security | South Asia

Afghanistan Sees Drop in Civilian Casualties, But Threat Remains Serious

The UN says more than 500 civilians were killed in the first three months of 2020 and urged a ceasefire so the country can focus on fighting COVID-19.

Catherine Putz
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Afghanistan Sees Drop in Civilian Casualties, But Threat Remains Serious
Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sharida Jackson

In the first quarter of 2020, according to a report from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), civilian casualties in Afghanistan fell 29 percent compared to the same period in 2019.

Despite that dramatic drop, 533 civilians — including 152 children — were killed in the first three months of 2020. Those deaths, plus 760 injuries, occurred at time when hopes of peace were elevated by renewed talks between the United States and the Taliban and then a momentous agreement on February 29. 

In its first quarter report, UNAMA reiterates UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ call for a global ceasefire so world governments and communities can focus on the fight against COVID-19.

The report includes a timeline of casualties, broken down by responsible party — the Taliban, the Islamic State (ISKP), Afghan security forces, and international forces — which underscores the report’s overall tone emphasizing that while the casualty rate has dropped (and that’s the headline many will go with) the conflict remains one of the world’s deadliest and the risk to civilians is nowhere near gone.

While the late February period marked a low for casualties — as negotiations culminated between Washington and the Taliban — March saw a marked uptick of casualties attributed to the Taliban, ISKP, and Afghan government forces. 

“UNAMA is gravely concerned with the acceleration in violence observed in March, mainly by the Taliban against Afghan national security forces, and the consequent increase in the number of civilian casualties and harm caused… This concerning trend was all the more notable as it followed a ‘reduction in violence’ week — 22 February to 28 February — between the Pro-Government Forces and the Taliban that then led to the agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban on 29 February,” the report noted.

Violence can be, and was, reduced — but those efforts appear at this juncture to have been a temporary reprieve. Civilian casualties rose again as the Taliban and the Afghan government, which was not a party to the February 29 agreement, fumbled in their own negotiations. 

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid rejected the UN report as an attempt “to cover up daily crimes against civilians committed by U.S. and Afghan forces.”

“Afghans are witnessing that most of the civilian casualties are due to indiscriminate bombings, rocket attacks on villages and towns as well as raids on civilian homes,” Mujahid said.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. peace envoy to Afghanistan, over the weekend called on Afghan leaders — both President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, who have squabbled over the results of the September 2019 presidential election; as well as the Taliban — to set aside their differences in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

“The well-being of the Afghan people and the country itself depend on all parties devoting their full energies to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the shared enemy of all,” Khalilzad tweeted. He referred to Ramadan as a opportunity for Ghani and Abdullah “to put the interest of the country ahead of their own” and for the Taliban to “embrace a humanitarian ceasefire to reduce violence and suspend offensive military operations until the health crisis is over.”

As of April 27, Afghanistan had confirmed 1,703 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that emerged in late 2019 in Wuhan, China. To date, 57 deaths in Afghanistan have been attributed to COVID-19, with experts warning that the numbers are likely far behind the reality of the situation given Afghanistan’s weak healthcare infrastructure.

Deborah Lyons, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of UNAMA, called on all parties to the Afghan conflict to “to focus collective efforts on fighting a common enemy, the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“To safeguard the lives of countless civilians in Afghanistan and to give the nation hope of a better future, it is imperative that violence is stopped with the establishment of a ceasefire and for peace negotiations to commence,” Lyons said.

With reporting from the Associated Press’ Rahim Faiez.