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Report: Civilian casualties rising in Afghanistan

An Afghan boy covers his face as U.S. soldiers, not shown, pass by during a patrol in a village near Forward Operating Base Zangabad, in southern Afghanistan, in March 2013.

JOSH SMITH/STARS AND STRIPES

By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 31, 2013

KABUL — The number of civilians killed in Afghanistan — particularly women and children — has risen this year following a decline in 2012, according to a U.N. report that lays much of the blame on insurgents.

A number of those killed in the first six months of the year were caught in crossfire between insurgents and Afghan forces who are increasingly taking over the fighting as international troops depart.

Civilian deaths and injuries rose by 23 percent in the first half of 2013 compared with the same period last year, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported.

Seventy-four percent of the casualties were attributed to insurgent groups, the report said. In particular, it noted the proliferation of roadside bombs (improvised explosive devices, or IEDs) during the reporting period, which ran from Jan. 1 to June 30.

The number of targeted killings of civilians perceived to be supportive of the Kabul government rose sharply, up 29 percent from the same period last year. Most of them were blamed on insurgents.

Nine percent of the casualties were blamed on international or Afghan forces.

“The violent impact of the conflict on Afghan civilians marked by the return of rising civilian casualties in 2013 demands even greater commitment and further efforts by parties to the conflict to better protect civilians who are increasingly being killed and injured in the cross-fire,” UNAMA head Jan Kubis said in a prepared statement. “The increase in the indiscriminate use of IEDs and the deliberate targeting of civilians by anti-government elements is particularly alarming and must stop.”

Civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes, long a bone of contention between NATO and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, were down 30 percent, according to the report. Drone strikes reportedly killed 15 civilians and injured seven more in the first half of the year, and UNAMA criticized the coalition for refusing requests for information on the legal framework used to determine targeting criteria.

The number of Afghans killed by unexploded ordnance is also up sharply, blamed partly on an increase in fighting but also on sloppy cleanup of ISAF firing ranges as international forces rush to close bases ahead of the deadline for all foreign combat troops to leave the country.

Forty-three civilians were killed and 102 injured by unexploded ordnance, a 53 percent increase in casualties from the first half of 2012.

In a statement, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force blamed the Taliban for nearly 90 percent of casualties, though UNAMA reported 74 percent of civilian casualties were blamed on insurgents, not all of whom are affiliated with the Taliban.

An ISAF spokesman explained that the coalition considered the 12 percent of casualties caused by ground engagements that UNAMA termed “inconclusive” to be caused by insurgents, bringing ISAF’s total figure to 86 percent.

“Protecting innocent Afghan civilians is the cornerstone of ISAF’s mission,” the ISAF statement read. “It is a sacred trust and responsibility that the Coalition forces take very seriously.”

The Taliban quickly issued a rebuttal of the report, saying it was misleading and produced at the behest of the United States. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the Taliban take great pains to avoid civilian casualties. He also took issue with UNAMA’s definition of civilians, saying that government employees, including attorneys and court workers, are legitimate targets.

“We are seriously focusing on avoiding civilian casualties,” Mujahid said.

Afghan troops have been doing more and more of the fighting as the Dec. 31, 2014, deadline for all foreign combat troops to leave the country nears. While the war is likely coming to an end for most international troops, violence has shown no sign of abating in the country and, absent a peace deal, is likely to continue well after the end of next year.

Overall, UNAMA reported 1,319 civilian deaths and 2,533 civilian injuries in the first half of 2013, suggesting “a return to the trend of 2011,” a time when the U.S.-led military surge prompted a spike in violence. During the same reporting period in 2012, 1,145 civilians were killed and 1,954 were injured, according to UNAMA.

Women and children were particularly hard hit by the violence in the first half of this year, seeing a 38 percent increase in casualties, according to the report.

“The growing loss of life and injuries to Afghan women and children in 2013 is particularly disturbing,” said the director of UNAMA’s Human Rights Unit, Georgette Gagnon, in a prepared statement.

Reflecting the changing character of the war, in which the Afghan security forces have taken over much of the fighting in recent months, civilians caught in the crossfire between insurgents and Afghan troops accounted for 25 percent of civilian casualties.

Casualties directly attributed to the Afghan security forces were up 170 percent, though still accounted for only a fraction of all casualties. The increase was attributed to stepped up operations as international forces withdraw. However, UNAMA criticized the Afghan forces for lacking measures to prevent or track civilian casualties and accused them of underreporting the number of civilian deaths they have caused.

Lal Gul, founder of the Afghanistan Human Rights Organization, said all parties to the conflict must do more to reduce civilian casualties and added that very little has been done to assist the families of civilians killed or injured in the war.

“If a family is harmed, no one works with them to help them cope, so they join the enemies of the government,” he said.

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

druzin.heath@stripes.com
Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

 

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