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6 months into 2021, Afghanistan sees record number of civilian deaths

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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 per cent 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.

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“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.

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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.

Read more: U.S to carry out more airstrikes to support Afghan troops amid Taliban offensive

Commenting on the report Monday, Christopher Alexander, who served as Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003-2005, told Global News that the spike in casualties was “extremely disappointing in the context of the peace process.”

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 per cent 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 per cent, according to the report. Thirty-two per cent were children, with 468 killed and 1,214 wounded. Fourteen per cent of civilian casualties were women, with 219 killed and 508 wounded, the report said.

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

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“The Taliban and their allies seem to be cashing in on the opportunity of a unilateral U.S. and NATO withdrawal to press their advantage and to really … impose their power on Afghanistan by force,” said Alexander, who is also a former Conservative cabinet member.

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.

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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.

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.

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The number of civilians killed and wounded in May and June is almost as many as recorded in the preceding four months. During May and June there were 2,392 casualties, with 783 killed and 1,609 wounded. That’s the highest for those months since systematic documentation began in 2009, the report said.

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.

Read more: Sister of Canadian soldier killed in action says leaving Afghans behind ‘unconscionable’

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

It blamed anti-government forces for 64 per cent of all civilian casualties, with 39 per cent inflicted by the Taliban, nearly nine per cent by the Islamic State group and 16 per cent undetermined. Afghan security forces were responsible for 23 per cent of civilian casualties, and pro-government armed groups for two per cent.

The May 8 attack outside the Sayed ul-Shuhuda school in the Afghan capital of Kabul accounted for more than 300 civilian casualties, mostly girls, including 85 killed. No one has claimed responsibility for that attack, the report said.

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The U.N. attributed 11 per cent of all civilian casualties to crossfire during ground engagements in which the exact party responsible for casualties could not be determined.

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

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Support from Canada

Canadian officials are on the ground in Afghanistan and working to identify those eligible for a new “path to protection” for Afghans who supported Canadian troops during the war in that country.

Details on the program are scarce so far but in an update by the government on Friday, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said it will welcome the Afghans and their families as refugees for resettlement.

Read more: Canada offers ‘path to protection’ for Afghan interpreters amid ‘critical’ situation

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Mendicino said the plan will focus on special immigration measures for Afghan interpreters, Afghans who have worked or are currently working to support the Canadian embassy, as well as their families.

Alexander said the Canadian government was expected to lend its support especially because of its “large-scale investment” into the country.

“We should be working not only to protect the interpreters and others that helped us for 20 years, but to help these 40 million Afghans achieve the peace that they’ve been seeking for so long.”

— with files from Global News’ Redmond Shannon and Amanda Connolly. 

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