After two hours of searching in vain through the city hospital for his cousin, Mohammad knew he had to face the inevitable, so he walked into the morgue.
There he immediately came face-to-face with the corpses of two gunmen who had incited a firefight in the western city of Herat that led to his cousin, Mohammad Alem Rassouli, being taken to the hospital.
“Their bodies were right there,” said Mohammad, who asked that his full name not be used. “They hadn’t even been put into the cold storage lockers yet.”
He knew what he had to do. He rushed to the rows of dozens of cold storage lockers, opening them one by one. When he saw the body of his cousin with a bullet wound in the right side, the reality finally set in that the popular, 34-year-old father of four had become another statistic of Afghanistan’s most recent conflict.
Caught in a crossfire between government forces and gunmen in July, Rassouli was one of what the United Nations said was a record number of civilians killed or wounded in Afghanistan since 2009, when the international organization began releasing annual statistics.
The U.N. mission in Afghanistan counted 3,188 deaths and 6,429 injuries among civilians from January through November 2014. That represented a 19% increase from the same period a year earlier, U.N. officials said. Final 2014 statistics are expected to be released next month.
The toll underscores the growing lethality of warfare across Afghanistan as a smaller U.S.-led NATO force moves into a training role and Afghan soldiers and police personnel take sole responsibility for security.
Rassouli, the head of transportation for a gas company, didn’t die as so many other Afghans did over the last 13 years: stepping on a Taliban-planted explosive, getting caught in a suicide attack or falling victim to one of the coalition airstrikes that residents say have become increasingly common in Herat province.
Instead, Rassouli was struck by an errant bullet fired by Afghan forces hunting in a residential area for the killers of two soldiers, family members said. Last year, the U.N. reported that nearly 40% of civilian casualties resulted from exchanges of gunfire between Afghan forces and antigovernment fighters.
The gunmen “must have been unable to carry out an attack on their intended target, so they shot the security forces stationed near a checkpoint,” Mohammad said. One of the gunmen, he said, had been wearing a suicide vest.
Obaid Ali of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based research group, said increased civilian casualties are in part due to the Taliban taking advantage of a February 2013 order by then-President Hamid Karzai that called for an end to airstrikes by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in residential areas.
“The Taliban know air support is limited now, a fact which they have used to their advantage when staging attacks, including in areas with high civilian populations,” Ali said.
For Feroz Ahmad, a resident of Herat province’s Pashtun Zarghun district, Rassouli’s death illustrates an alarming trend. For years, the Taliban and its allies mostly confined themselves to sparsely populated border areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan. But in recent months they have made gains in urban areas such as the city of Herat, the largest in the west.
“Even in Herat, including the city, we have seen an increase in casualties,” Ahmad said.
The continuing withdrawal of foreign troops was one factor in the surge in violence, Afghans say, but so was the political uncertainty surrounding last summer’s presidential election. Riddled with accusations of widespread government-assisted fraud, the vote count dragged on for months before Ashraf Ghani was declared the winner, creating a political vacuum that insurgents took advantage of, analysts say.
Rahmatullah Nabil, director of the National Directorate of Security, told lawmakers recently that areas surrounding Kabul, the capital, have become home to at least 103 armed opposition groups.
Some say that the U.N. statistics, which include a 33% increase in casualties among children, may be an underestimate. Ali said the toll is particularly in question in remote provinces where it is difficult to access information.
U.N. experts involved in compiling the closely watched casualty reports say they include only cases that they have verified by at least three sources. Because of the high standard, the U.N. mission said in an emailed statement that “we may be underreporting the exact figures, but the incidents we report are fully verified and our trend reporting and analysis is accurate.”
In some cases, the source of the violence is impossible to trace.
On June 14, as Mohammad Zubair Jeman’s family was preparing to vote in the presidential runoff between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, four female members of the group, including a 1-year-old girl, were killed when an errant rocket landed in their home in a rural area of the eastern province of Laghman.
“To this day I don’t know which direction the rocket came from,” Jeman, 22, said. “There is so much disorder wherever you look in this country.”
As delays continue in the naming of a presidential Cabinet, many Afghans have come to see Ghani’s government as part of the problem.
Jeman, who, like most of his family, was encouraged by Ghani’s promises to bring peace and security to Afghanistan, said, “We have yet to see it.”
The Taliban’s reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, said in a statement this month that “operations should be executed with utmost care to avoid any civilian casualties.” But in 2012 and 2013, the U.N. said, the Taliban and its allies were responsible for more than 78% of civilian deaths.
Shukria Barakzai, a Kabul lawmaker who survived a Nov. 26 assassination attempt, said Afghans have little choice but to carry on with their lives.
“I went back to the parliament. Children went back to playing football on the same streets where bombings occurred. People returned to work,” she said. “Not because they didn’t care, but because they are strong and have no other choice.”
Latifi is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Shashank Bengali in Mumbai, India, contributed to this report.