After NATO meeting, defence secretary says ‘no decision’ on troop withdrawal, calls for progress in peace talks
Civilian casualties in Afghanistan have escalated sharply since peace talks between the government and the Taliban armed group began last year, the United Nations says in a report calling for a ceasefire as negotiators met for the first time after weeks of inaction.
Afghan civilian casualties totalled 8,820 in 2020, according to the UN mission to Afghanistan’s (UNAMA) annual report released on Tuesday, a figure 15 percent lower than 2019, but the authors noted with alarm a sharp uptick and historically high civilian casualties in the final three months of the year – since the talks began.
The US-brokered peace talks – set out in an agreement between the Taliban and the US signed in February last year – began in September, but progress has since slowed and violence risen as uncertainty hovers over whether international forces will be pulled out by May as originally planned.
Last year “could have been the year of peace in Afghanistan. Instead, thousands of Afghan civilians perished”, said Deborah Lyons, head of UNAMA, reiterating calls for a ceasefire that have been repeatedly rejected by the Taliban.
“Parties refusing to consider a ceasefire must recognise the devastating consequences,” said Lyons.
The Taliban on Tuesday responded critically to the report, saying: “The concerns, precise information and accurate details that were shared by us have not been taken into account.”
The UN report said for the first time since records began, deaths and injuries escalated in the final three months of the year from the previous three months.
Casualties for the fourth quarter were up 45 percent compared with the same period in 2019.
Most were ascribed to non-government actors, predominately the Taliban, and more than one-fifth was attributed to government forces.
A government spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Both sides said on Twitter their chief negotiators met in Doha, Qatar, the venue for peace talks, on Monday evening, adding that teams would continue work on an agenda.
After a month-long break over the new year period, negotiators returned to Doha briefly before many senior members of the Taliban left to hold meetings in Russia and Iran.