Ongoing peace talks between Washington and the Taliban could see the end of the 18-year-long conflict in Afghanistan, but many fear that a potential US pullout could plunge the country into a bloody civil war.
More civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2018 than in any of the previous nine years of the protracted conflict, according to a United Nations report released on Sunday.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) blamed the spike in deaths on increased suicide bombings by militant groups and aerial attacks by US-led coalition forces.
The UNAMA annual report said that 10,993 civilians were killed or wounded last year, the highest number since the international organization started recording figures in 2009.
"In total, UNAMA documented 10,993 civilian casualties (3,804 deaths and 7,189 injured), representing a five percent increase in overall civilian casualties and an 11 percent increase in civilian deaths compared to 2017," the report said.
"Key factors contributing to the significant increase in civilian casualties were a spike in suicide attacks by AGEs (Anti-Government Elements), mainly Daesh/ISKP (Islamic State Khorosan Province), as well as increased harm to civilians from aerial and search operations by pro-government forces. 2018 witnessed the highest number of civilian casualties ever recorded from suicide attacks and aerial operations," the UNAMA report added.
According to the report, 63 percent of all civilian casualties were caused by Islamists — 37 percent by the Taliban, 20 percent by "Islamic State" (IS), and 6 percent by other armed groups. The Afghan government and NATO allies were blamed for 24 percent of the dead and wounded caught in the crossfire.
Efforts to end war
Tadamichi Yamamoto, the UN secretary general's special representative for Afghanistan, said that in total more than 32,000 civilians have been killed and 60,000 have been injured in Afghanistan in a decade.
"The report's rigorously researched findings show that the level of harm and suffering inflicted on civilians in Afghanistan is deeply disturbing and wholly unacceptable," said Yamamoto. "All parties need to take immediate and additional concrete steps to stop a further escalation in the number of civilians harmed and lives destroyed."
International efforts to end the violent conflict are underway, with the US holding talks with the Taliban. Several rounds of peace talks have been held in the past few months, however the Afghan government's involvement in them has been minimal.
Read more: Afghanistan: Can peace prevail?
US President Donald Trump has already hinted at a possible withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, but some analysts have warned against it, arguing that it could initiate a violent battle among several armed groups for the control of the country.
"I am concerned that the withdrawal plans are being hurried up. If the US goes ahead with it, it will be a new tragedy for Afghans. The people of Afghanistan deserve long-term support," Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a former secretary general of NATO, told DW.
"But let me be clear that nobody is interested in a permanent military presence in Afghanistan, so it will happen some day. Afghans must understand this," he added.