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Children represent the fastest growing group among civilians killed and injured in Afghanistan’s long-running armed conflict. The latest update from the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) documents 639 conflict-related deaths and 1,822 injuries among children in the first nine months of this year – 15 percent higher than the same period in 2015, which was also a record-setting year for deaths and injuries to children. In fact, child casualties in Afghanistan have risen every year since 2013.

Afghan boys look out from behind a damaged wall after a Taliban attack in Kabul, Afghanistan October 6, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

Ground fighting between Taliban and Afghan government forces, which has increased as more districts have become battlegrounds, caused more than half of all child casualties in 2016. Moreover, 84 percent of civilians killed or injured by unexploded ordnance were children. These de facto landmines, which detonate on contact, remain lethal for months or years after the fighting ends, turning open areas into minefields.

The Taliban remain responsible for most civilian casualties. Despite Taliban claims that protecting civilians is one of their main aims, the armed group continues to pursue a strategy of suicide bombings against civilians and attacks on populated areas. However, groups claiming affiliation with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) were responsible for some of the worst atrocities of this nine-month period, including the July 23 attack on mainly ethnic Hazara protesters in Kabul that killed at least 85 people and injured more than 400, making it the single deadliest attack since 2001. According to a special report by UNAMA, the bomb-makers’ insertion of ball bearings in the device meant that more-distant bystanders were harmed, as well as protesters, and these included at least four children killed and eight wounded. A sectarian attack by ISIS-affiliated groups on a Shia mosque in Kabul on October 12 killed 15 people, including two children. Targeting civilians for attack is a war crime.

Civilian casualties caused by government forces have also risen sharply, with 623 civilian deaths and 1,274 injuries attributable to the Afghan military and other pro-government forces – a 42 percent increase from last year. A growing number of these are the result of airstrikes, as well as the use of indirect explosive weapons in populated areas. One-third of the 292 casualties from airstrikes were caused by international military forces. UNAMA has warned that the failure to limit the use of artillery, other explosive weapons, and airstrikes in civilian-populated areas will continue to kill and maim civilians, including many children.

Unless all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan take urgent steps to abide by the laws of war, civilians – especially children – will continue to pay the price.

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