ISLAMABAD - The United Nations said Wednesday the number of civilians killed and injured in Afghanistan during the first three months of 2021 had been “significantly” higher than a year ago, calling on warring sides to urgently find a way to stem the violence.
The Kabul-based world body’s office released its quarterly findings ahead of President Joe Biden speech Wednesday about his decision to remove all U.S. troops from the South Asian nation by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America.
The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan recorded in its report close to 1,800 civilian casualties, including 573 deaths, a 29% increase compared with the same period in 2020.
It went on to note a worrying 37% increase in the number of Afghan women killed and injured, and a 23% escalation in child casualties compared with the first quarter of the previous year.
“The number of Afghan civilians killed and maimed, especially women and children, is deeply disturbing,” said UNAMA chief Deborah Lyons. “I implore the parties to urgently find a way to stop this violence.”
Meanwhile, Afghan officials said Wednesday clashes with Taliban insurgents and a militant car bombing have killed and injured more people, including civilians.
On Tuesday, a senior U.S. administration official said Biden had determined “that the best path forward to advance American interests is to end the war in Afghanistan after 20 years, so that we can address the global threat picture as it exists today, not as it was two decades ago.”
The decision will keep 3,000 U.S. troops on in Afghanistan beyond the May 1 deadline that had been agreed to in a deal Washington sealed with the Taliban a year ago under the then president, Donald Trump.
The landmark agreement encouraged the insurgents to open direct talks with the Afghan government last September in Qatar’s capital Doha. However, the so-called intra-Afghan peace negotiations have remained deadlocked for most of the time.
The Biden administration’s plans to abandon the May 1 troop withdrawal deadline upset the Taliban and the insurgent group quickly refused on Tuesday to attend any peace-related meetings “until all foreign forces completely withdraw” from Afghanistan.
The Taliban decision came hours after Turkey announced a multination peace conference that the hosts hope could pave the way to a power-sharing arrangement between the Afghan warring parties.
The 10-day conference is scheduled to be held in Istanbul from April 24 with a mission to seek to revive the stalled intra-Afghan peace talks held in Doha.
Wednesday’s U.N. report accused the Taliban and other anti-government groups of causing 61-percent of all Afghan civilian casualties in the first quarter of 2021.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid rejected the findings and and blamed the U.S.-backed Kabul government forces for inflicting most of the casualties on Afghan civilians.
The commencement of Afghan peace talks seven months ago had raised hopes for bringing a negotiated end to the two-decade-long war before all U.S. and NATO allied troops exit the country in line with Washington’s February 2020 deal with the insurgents.
But there are growing concerns the foreign military withdrawal in the absence of a political deal among the Afghan adversaries would intensify bloodshed and chaos in the country.
“Every possible opportunity for peace must be seized. If levels of violence are not immediately reduced, thousands of Afghan civilians will continue to be killed and injured by fellow Afghans in 2021,” said UNAMA’s Lyons.