UN: Taliban cause Afghan civilian deaths to soar
Published Wednesday, January 13, 2010 6:16AM EST
KABUL - The number of Afghan civilians who died in war-related violence last year soared to the highest annual level since the conflict began in 2001, the UN said Wednesday, while deaths attributed to allied forces dropped nearly 30 per cent -- a key U.S. goal for winning over the Afghan people.
Unrelenting violence, which has defied a usual lull in the winter, has highlighted concern that casualties will rise as the U.S. and NATO send 37,000 more troops to try to stabilize the country. Civilian casualties have been a sensitive subject in Afghanistan, with U.S. forces frequently accused of killing noncombatants in airstrikes.
Nearly half of the Afghan civilian casualties occurred in southern Afghanistan, which has seen intense fighting as U.S. and allied troops seek to oust the Taliban and other insurgents, the U.N. said in a report. It said previously stable areas, such as Kunduz province and elsewhere in the northeast, also have witnessed increasing insecurity.
The UN mission in Afghanistan said 2,412 civilians were killed in 2009 -- a 14 per cent increase over the 2,118 who died in 2008. Another 3,566 civilians were wounded.
Nearly 70 per cent of the killings, or 1,630, were blamed on insurgents while 25 per cent, or 596, were attributed to pro-government forces, the report said. The remaining 135 deaths could not be attributed to either side but were civilians caught in the crossfire or killed by unexploded ordnance.
The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has ordered troops to use airstrikes judiciously and take other measures to reduce civilian casualties following widespread public outrage over civilian deaths.
Still, each new report of civilians killed unleashes raw emotions that highlight a growing impatience among the Afghan people with coalition forces' inability to secure the nation.
The number of civilians killed by pro-government forces, including U.S. airstrikes, decreased by 28 per cent over the previous year, the report found. Airstrikes still killed 359 civilians, or 60 percent of the deaths attributed to pro-government forces and 15 per cent of civilian deaths overall.
"This decrease reflects measures taken by international military forces to conduct operations in a manner that reduces the risk posed to civilians," it said.
A survey released this week found that 42 per cent of the 1,534 Afghan respondents now blame the violence on the Taliban -- up from 27 per cent a year ago. Seventeen percent blame the U.S., NATO or the Afghan security forces, down from 36 per cent a year ago. But 66 percent said airstrikes by the U.S. and international forces were unacceptable because they endangered too many innocent civilians, even though they might help defeat militants.
The survey, commissioned by ABC News, the BBC and ARD German TV, was conducted from Dec. 11 to Dec. 23 by the Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research in Kabul, a subsidiary of D3 Systems Inc. in Vienna, Va. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
"The thinking in the past up until this past year was that we need to go ahead and deal with the insurgency and we will take a calculated risk in terms of collateral damage," said Kamran Bokhari, an analyst with the U.S.-based global intelligence firm Stratfor. "That has somewhat shifted where more caution is being exercised."
But he predicted the escalation of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan would result in even more casualties.
"Civilians are going to be caught in the middle," he said. "So the numbers are going to go up."
The UN said more than half the number of civilian deaths were a result of suicide attacks and other bombings as well as assassinations and executions. The rest were largely due to rocket attacks and civilians caught in crossfire.
Insurgent attacks were mainly aimed at government or international military forces but often were carried out in crowded areas. Afghans seen as supporting the government or the international community also were targeted, including community elders, former military personnel, doctors, teachers and construction workers as well as employees of the UN and non-governmental organizations.
"Through these actions, the armed opposition has demonstrated a significant disregard for the suffering inflicted on civilians," the report said.
NATO forces also conducted a number of ground operations that caused civilian casualties, including search and seizure operations that often involved excessive use of force, destruction of property and cultural insensitivity, particularly toward women, according to the report.
The UN mission maintains a database on civilian casualties but does not break down responsibility for particular incidents other than attributing them to insurgents or pro-government forces.
It tracks the numbers with human rights teams based in 20 of the 34 provinces that investigate casualty reports on the ground, including traveling to the other provinces. It also works closely with the Afghan human rights commission, which operates in all provinces.