KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban suicide attacks and a fierce battle for the northern city of Kunduz made 2015 the worst year for Afghan civilian casualties since the United Nations began tracking the data, officials said Sunday, in a sobering reminder of the cost of the conflict at a time when the prospect of peace seems as distant as ever.
The U.N. documented 3,545 civilians killed and 7,457 injured last year, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the U.N. Human Rights Office said in a report presented at a news conference in Kabul, the Afghan capital. The total casualty figure, 11,002, was 4 percent above the 2014 level. The number of civilian injuries rose 9 percent, though there were 4 percent fewer deaths.
The statistics do not "reflect the real horror of the phenomenon we are talking about," Nicholas Haysom, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative for Afghanistan, told journalists.
"The real cost we are talking about in these figures," he said, "is measured in the maimed bodies of children, the communities who have to live with loss, the grief of colleagues and relatives, the families who make do without a breadwinner, the parents who grieve for lost children, the children who grieve for lost parents."
Battles between insurgents and Afghan government forces or their affiliated militias produced the largest number of civilian deaths and injuries, the U.N. found, followed by improvised explosive devices. Suicide attacks and "complex attacks" — in which Taliban attackers detonate explosives, then send in gunmen on suicide missions — also contributed to civilian casualties, as did "targeted and deliberate killings" on both sides of the conflict. About one-quarter of all the civilian dead and wounded were children, and about a tenth were women.
Afghans have endured armed conflict to one degree or another since 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded to install a Moscow-friendly government. The departure of most NATO combat troops at the end of 2014 coincided with an increase in attacks by the Taliban, who are seeking to reinstate the strict Islamist rule they established in the 1990s but lost to the United States and its Afghan allies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The deteriorating security situation has led hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes in the last few years, with some seeking refuge within Afghanistan and others fleeing to neighboring countries or Europe.
The violence shows little sign of abating. While there are no official figures available for this year, dozens of people have already been killed by fighting in Baghlan, Nangarhar and Helmand provinces, and the Taliban have begun targeting media workers, as evidenced by an attack on employees of Tolo Television in Kabul in January.
James R. Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, warned last week that "Afghanistan is at serious risk of a political breakdown during 2016, occasioned by mounting political, economic and security challenges."
The Taliban were responsible for 62 percent of the civilians killed or wounded last year, down 10 percentage points from 2014, the report found. Danielle Bell, the U.N. director of human rights for Afghanistan, said it was important to note that the number of unattributed casualties, including civilians caught in the middle of fighting between pro- and anti-government forces, had risen sharply, suggesting that the Taliban's responsibility might be understated.
The report found that responsibility could not be established for about 1,000 civilian deaths and injuries that occurred during the battle for Kunduz, which was captured by insurgents in September and retaken by government forces weeks later.
"Every victim here has a name," Bell said, "verified by three different types of sources," but she noted that officials were often unable to determine who was responsible, sometimes because travel to contested areas was not possible.
The report noted that in just one day, Aug. 7, two suicide attacks in Kabul killed 42 civilians and injured 313, the highest one-day toll since the U.N. began tracking Afghan civilian deaths in 2009. The Taliban were accused of the attacks by the government but denied responsibility.
Pro-government forces, which include the national army, the police and various militias, were responsible for about 17 percent of the civilian deaths and injuries. Those forces also included U.S. and NATO troops, which were responsible for about 2 percent.
The report "once again confirms the horrifically high price Afghans are paying as a result of conflict, whereby the actions of the Taliban and other terrorist groups are seeking to deny our citizens the right to live in peace and protect their families from harm," President Ashraf Ghani's government said in a statement. It said the reported decrease seen in Taliban-inflicted casualties did not show the insurgents' "sudden concern for civilian lives," but rather that many people living in harm's way had fled.
Efforts to reach a Taliban spokesman for comment were not immediately successful.
Kunduz was the site of one of the most egregious incidents cited by the U.N.: a botched U.S. airstrike on Oct. 3 that destroyed the Doctors Without Borders hospital in the city, killing 42 people, including doctors and nurses, and injuring 43 others.
The U.N. noted that the Pentagon had carried out its own investigation of the airstrike, which blamed the catastrophe on "avoidable human error," compounded by technical, mechanical and procedural failures. But it questioned the "independence and effectiveness" of the U.S. inquiry and repeated its own call for "an independent, impartial, transparent and effective investigation of the airstrike."
Hopes for a peace agreement with the Taliban grew in early 2014, but were dashed with the revelation that Mullah Mohammad Omar, one of the founders of the insurgency, had been dead for two years. Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States are together pushing for the warring parties to engage in face-to-face negotiations, but the outlook for progress is poor because of both Taliban gains on the battlefield and internal divisions within the movement.
"I think there are a lot of Taliban who want to come to the peace table," John F. Campbell, the U.S. Army general who is commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told a news conference in Kabul Saturday. But, he added: "I'm not sure who's in charge of the Taliban, if there's one person who speaks for the Taliban. I think that's where it's going to be hard to get the right people to the table."
The U.N. called on the government and its allies to stop using air attacks and "indirect fire weapons" like mortars and rockets in populated areas. It called on the Taliban to "cease the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian locations," and to end the use of improvised explosive devices in areas where civilians were likely to be found.
Haysom, the special representative for Afghanistan, said he had "no doubt that a peace agreement would lead to a reduction in civilian casualties." But until peace is achieved, he said, "we must call on those parties engaged in the conflict, who have it within their power to reduce the number of civilian casualties, to commit to taking every step that will avoid harm and injury to civilians."