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Afghan civilian casualties surge as U.S. forces withdraw

“I implore the Taliban and Afghan leaders to take heed of the conflict’s grim and chilling trajectory," a top U.N. official said.

KABUL, Afghanistan — More women and children were killed and wounded in Afghanistan in the first half of 2021 than in the first six months of any year since the United Nations began systematically keeping count in 2009, a U.N. report said Monday.

The war-torn country saw a 47 percent increase in the number of all civilians killed and wounded in violence across Afghanistan in the first six months of the year, compared to the same period last year, according to the report.

“I implore the Taliban and Afghan leaders to take heed of the conflict’s grim and chilling trajectory and its devastating impact on civilians," said Deborah Lyons, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan.

"The report provides a clear warning that unprecedented numbers of Afghan civilians will perish and be maimed this year if the increasing violence is not stemmed,” Lyons added in a statement accompanying the report.

At least 30 people, mostly schoolgirls, were killed in three back-to-back blasts targeting a school in Kabul on May 8, 2021.Haroon Sabawoon / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Taliban have swiftly captured significant territory in recent weeks, seized strategic border crossings with several neighboring countries and are threatening a number of provincial capitals. The advances come as the last U.S. and NATO soldiers leave Afghanistan.

The report found a particularly sharp increase in killings and injuries since May, when international military forces began their withdrawal and the fighting intensified following the Taliban’s offensive.

The U.N. mission in Afghanistan reported in its Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict midyear update 2021 that there were 1,659 civilians killed and 3,254 wounded. It said that's a 47 percent increase compared with the same period last year.

Women and children made up close to half of all civilian casualties in the first half of 2021 at 46 percent, according to the report. Thirty-two percent were children, with 468 killed and 1,214 wounded. Fourteen percent of civilian casualties were women, with 219 killed and 508 wounded, the report said.

The U.S.-NATO withdrawal is more than 95 percent complete and due to be finished by Aug. 31.

While making swift gains on the ground, the Taliban have also said they do not want to monopolize power. However, they insist there won’t be peace in Afghanistan until there is a new negotiated government in Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani is removed from office.

Lyons, the U.N. envoy who also heads the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, called on the Taliban and Afghan leaders to intensify their efforts at the negotiating table. "Stop the Afghan against Afghan fighting. Protect the Afghan people and give them hope for a better future,” she said.

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The U.N. report warned that without a significant de-escalation in violence, Afghanistan is on course for 2021 to have the highest ever number of documented civilian casualties in a single year since U.N. record-keeping in the country began.

According to the report, much of the battlefield action during May and June took place outside of the cities. But the U.N. is concerned that if intensive military action is undertaken in urban areas with high population densities, the consequences for Afghan civilians could be catastrophic.

“The pursuit of a military solution will only increase the suffering of the Afghan people,” the report said.

It blamed antigovernment forces for 64 percent of all civilian casualties, with 39 percent inflicted by the Taliban, nearly 9 percent by the Islamic State group and 16 percent undetermined. Afghan security forces were responsible for 23 percent of civilian casualties, and pro-government armed groups for 2 percent.

According to the report, the main cause of civilian casualties was improvised explosive devices, followed by fighting on the ground and targeted killings.