- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 31, 2019

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan spiked significantly from July through September because of a higher number of attacks, most notably before presidential elections last month, a Pentagon watchdog said Thursday.

The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which monitors U.S. government efforts inside Afghanistan, said the number of civilian deaths caused by the Taliban movement’s battles with the U.S.-backed Kabul government more than tripled during the quarter compared with the same period last year.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported a record-breaking 4,313 civilian deaths — a 42% increase from the same time last year, and the NATO-led Resolute Support mission recorded a 38% spike in civilian deaths from the same time in 2018.

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The report was released as U.S. negotiators were attempting to revive nearly a year’s worth of negotiations with Afghan government officials and Taliban leaders to settle the 18-year-old war after U.S. talks with the Taliban unraveled in September. The radical Islamist movement and the Trump administration appeared on the verge of a breakthrough deal to bring the bulk of U.S. troops home from Afghanistan this year.

Mr. Trump abruptly declared the peace talks “dead” after the Taliban launched an attack in Kabul that killed an American soldier — just days before leaders from the U.S.-backed Afghan government in Kabul and the Taliban were set to meet at Camp David.

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was in Kabul on Thursday trying to negotiate a prisoner exchange that would free two Western professors employed by the American University of Afghanistan held by the Taliban since 2016, The Associated Press reported. Mr. Khalilzad is discussing a prisoner exchange that could resuscitate the Taliban talks, officials told the AP.

The latest SIGAR report found that violence resulting from Taliban attacks shot up over the summer and roughly half of the enemy-initiated attacks were successful.

Political violence and protests also increased by 61% surrounding the contentious election, which was pushed back from April to September.

Taliban leaders repeatedly threatened to target polling places ahead of the contest, in which President Ashraf Ghani sought a second term in a race against more than a dozen opponents. Afghan election officials announced this week that preliminary results of the race have been delayed until November.

The SIGAR report was just one of two reports issued about the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan.

The rights advocacy group Human Rights Watch issued a report that condemned “atrocities” carried out by CIA-backed Afghan special operations forces.

“These troops include Afghan strike forces who have been responsible for extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances, indiscriminate airstrikes, attacks on medical facilities, and other violations of international humanitarian law, or the laws of war,” the report said.

Both reports found that the rising number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan is at least partly linked to the Afghan special operations forces.

The Human Rights Watch officials said they have documented 14 cases in which CIA-backed Afghan strike forces committed “serious abuses” from the end of 2017 to mid-2019 that are “illustrative of a larger pattern of serious laws-of-war-violations,” and suggested some may amount to war crimes.

“At their core, the behavior of these Afghan paramilitary forces reflects the propensity of the U.S. and Afghan governments to prioritize short-term military fixes over long-term reforms that would promote security and the rule of law,” said the report’s author, Patricia Gossman, associate director for the organization’s Asia division.

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