KABUL — Civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose 14 percent in 2013, with the noncombatant population continuing to take the brunt of the violence as international forces leave, the United Nations said in a report issued Saturday.
Insurgents were blamed for the vast majority of the 8,616 recorded civilian deaths and injuries, though an increasing number of civilians were caught in the crossfire between Afghan security forces and insurgents, according to the report by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
“If civilians are being killed, and notably if they are targeted as civilians, this is a crime and it might constitute a war crime, and eventually justice will come, sooner or later,” UNAMA chief Jan Kubis said at a news conference.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said that the insurgent group rejected the report and that the U.N. was using it to bolster international and Afghan forces.
"We have always tried to avoid civilian casualties," he said.
While the war is winding down for international forces, which have been pulling out of the country ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline for the departure of all foreign combat troops, the report paints a stark picture of a conflict still in full swing.
Of the 8,615 recorded civilian casualties in 2013, there were 2,959 deaths and 5,656 injuries, according to the report. The numbers put a damper on hopes of a downward trend, after UNAMA’s 2012 report showed civilian casualties dip to 7,589 from 7,839 in 2011.
Each year, UNAMA compiles its Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict report to document the war's toll on civilians.
Since 2009, when the U.S. troops surge began, more than 14,000 Afghan civilians have been killed and thousands more injured, the report says. From then until now, civilian casualties have generally been increasing. The recorded number of civilian casualties in 2013 was 44 percent greater than in 2009.
Bombs remained the biggest danger to civilians in 2013, according to the report, accounting for 34 percent of deaths and injuries. But the number of deaths and injuries due to crossfire between government forces and insurgents rose sharply as Afghan troops took over most of the day-to-fighting. Such violence accounted for 27 percent of civilian casualties in 2013.
The report draws a correlation between increased civilian casualties and the vacuum created by the withdrawal of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and the closure of ISAF bases. This development, according to the report, has given insurgents more room to operate and attack Afghan forces.
“It’s a direct impact of the lead of Afghan National Security Forces in the military operations,” Kubis said.
ISAF released a statement supportive of the report.
“Throughout 2014, we will work with our Afghan partners to ensure we continue to take all actions necessary to reduce civilian casualties,” the statement said. “Protecting Afghan civilians is the cornerstone of ISAF’s mission.”
International forces were blamed for 3 percent of civilian casualties, while Afghan forces accounted for 8 percent of such casualties, according to the report. The number of civilian casualties caused by ISAF airstrikes - a persistent drag on relations between Afghanistan and its military allies - was down 10 percent, although they still accounted for 118 deaths and 64 injuries.
While the report called for increased vigilance from both Afghan and international forces, it focused its criticism on insurgent attacks and the Taliban’s continued insistence that nonmilitary government workers and supporters of the government are legitimate targets.
“These are clear violations of humanitarian law,” UNAMA Human Rights Director Georgette Gagnon said at the news conference.
One of the biggest concerns addressed to ISAF in the report was a spike in the number of civilians killed and injured by unexploded ordnance in 2013. This was put down to failure to clear ordinance from firing ranges before bases were closed.
Afghan forces were chided for failing to document and report incidents in which their forces caused civilian casualties, and the Afghan Local Police - local militias paid by the government - were blamed for an increasing number of civilian casualties, including summary executions.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.