By Josh Smith
KABUL (Reuters) – Civilians are being killed and wounded in record numbers in Afghanistan, the United Nations reported on Monday, just days after one of the deadliest attacks ever in Kabul.
Overall at least 1,601 civilians were killed and 3,565 wounded in the war in the first six months of 2016, the United Nations reported, as insurgent groups like the Taliban try to topple the government installed in Kabul after the 2001 U.S.-led military intervention.
Anti-government groups, the largest of which is the Taliban, accounted for at least 60 percent of non-combatants killed and wounded.
Twin blasts on Saturday were claimed by Islamic State militants and killed at least 80 people and injured more than 230, most of them civilians.
Those numbers are not included in the U.N. report, but the attack highlighted its finding that suicide bombings and complex attacks are now harming more civilians than are roadside bombs.
Casualties caused by pro-government forces increased 47 percent over the same period last year, the United Nations said.
Afghan forces were responsible for 22 percent of casualties overall, and the international troops remaining in the country caused 2 percent, while 17 percent could not be attributed to one side or the other.
For the first time, the Afghan air force killed or wounded more civilians in its operations than did air strikes carried out by international forces, the United Nations reported.
The top U.S. military official told reporters in Washington that while the Afghan security forces were taking measures to reduce the risk of civilian casualties, the increase in casualties caused by them was “natural” since it was the first year the air force had flown operations in support of ground forces.
“That is one of the reasons why we are continuing in our advise, assist effort,” Marine General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford said at a news conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
U.N. officials said they had heard more commitments by both sides, but few effective actions to improve protection of civilians.
“Every civilian casualty represents a failure of commitment and should be a call to action for parties to the conflict to take meaningful, concrete steps to reduce civilians’ suffering and increase protection,” Tadamichi Yamamoto, the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, said in the report.
“Platitudes not backed by meaningful action ring hollow over time. History and the collective memory of the Afghan people will judge leaders of all parties to this conflict by their actual conduct.”
More than 1,500 children were killed and wounded by the war, in the highest toll ever recorded in a six-month period by the United Nations.
Most civilians were caught up in ground clashes between the two sides as the Taliban increasingly threatened population centers and government troops went on the offensive following the withdrawal of most international combat troops in 2014.
Ground engagements accounted for 38 percent of casualties, followed by complex and suicide attacks at 20 percent, U.N. investigators found.
Casualties caused by roadside bombs decreased dramatically, by 21 percent, a drop the United Nations attributed to changes in the nature of the conflict, as well as better bomb-detection by the government.
The report was sharply critical of the Taliban, who “continued using indiscriminate tactics, including carrying out devastating complex and suicide attacks in civilian areas”.
Islamic State, a group that has made some limited inroads in Afghanistan, accounted for 122 casualties in the first six months of 2016 compared with 13 casualties attributed to it in the same period last year.
The increasing number of casualties caused by the government, meanwhile, was largely due to wide use of heavy explosives during ground battles, investigators reported.
Aerial operations by the Afghan air force in 2016 caused more than triple the number of civilian casualties during the same period in 2015, according to the report, as new aircraft and weapons were deployed.
At least 111 civilians, 85 of them women or children, were killed or wounded by Afghan helicopters and warplanes.
On June 13, for example, Afghan helicopters fired rockets and machine guns at a funeral ceremony for a Taliban member, killing or wounding at least 15 women and children, alongside insurgents, investigators found.
U.N. officials called for an immediate halt to the use of air strikes in populated areas and urged Afghan air crews to use “greater restraint”.
While international forces declared their combat mission over at the end of 2014, they continue to conduct air strikes and special operations missions.
Air strikes by international forces, comprised mostly of American warplanes, caused 38 deaths and 12 injuries among civilians, the U.N. reported.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Robert Birsel and Cynthia Osterman)