More than 13 years since the U.S.-led invasion, the war in Afghanistan continues to bring death and horror to civilians, who face record casualties and high levels of displacement amid intensified fighting, according to a new United Nations study.
Released Wednesday by the UN's Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the 2014 annual report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict comes more than a month after U.S. President Barack Obama claimed that "the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion."
The announcement adds to initial casualty reports released by the UN at the end of last year.
According to UNAMA's calculations, over the course of 2014, 3,699 civilians were killed and 6,849 were wounded in fighting, marking a 22 percent increase in civilian deaths and injuries from 2013 and the highest overall number of civilian casualties since 2009.
Among civilians, children were especially impacted by the spike in violence. According to UNAMA, 714 children were killed and 1,760 were wounded in 2014, marking a 40 percent increase from the previous year.
"In communities across Afghanistan, increased ground fighting among parties to the conflict and more IED attacks exacted a heavy toll on Afghan civilians," said the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of UNAMA, Nicholas Haysom, in a UN press statement.
"Anti-government elements" are responsible for the vast majority—72 percent—of civilian deaths and wounds.
However, U.S.-backed Afghan national security forces account for 12 percent.
The brother of a groom whose wedding in Helmand province was struck by Afghan National Army (ANA) mortar fire in December 2014 told UN researchers, "The wedding ceremony was transformed into a funeral when our house was hit by mortar rounds fired by the Afghan National Army. We do not know why we were targeted or why we have suffered casualties for nothing. Who can we approach to listen to us?"
Furthermore, international forces account for at least two percent of civilian casualties last year. The report notes, "Despite the drawdown of ISAF international forces country-wide and an overall decrease in civilian casualties caused by international forces, in 2014 UNAMA documented a nine per cent increase in civilian casualties from Afghan operations partnered with international security forces."
The findings come on the heels of reporting from The New York Times last week which finds that U.S. and Afghan forces are escalating unpopular night raids allegedly targeting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, despite the Obama administration's claim that combat operations are coming to a close.
The UN report shows that civilians are paying the price for related joint operations: "On 18 September, the ANA conducted a night search operation in Nika district, Paktika province, supported with air assets by international military forces. The operation caused seven civilian casualties (five deaths including three men and two boys and two injured)."
Kate Clark from the Afghanistan Analysts Network warned in an article published Wednesday of the "dangers stemming from the lack of accountability and transparency of clandestine operations, in this case by U.S. special forces and the CIA with Afghan partners."
"They could be special forces, NDS paramilitaries or non-state, pro-government militias, often referred to as Campaign Forces," Clark continues. "The latter exists outside the Afghan government chain of command and, we have been told, are still active in some provinces such as Khost. The fall out of 'partnered operations' is clearly a trend to watch."
However, the UN report finds, the human costs goes beyond immediate bodily harm.
The number of people forced from their homes increased 8 percent last year, bringing the country's total internally displaced population above 800,000. Furthermore, UNAMA notes, women widowed by war face deep poverty, social ostracism, and abuse.