Afghan civilian casualties down, but peace remains elusive

Jon Stephenson

KABUL -- The number of civilians killed or wounded by violence in Afghanistan dropped 15 percent in the first six months of the year compared with the same period in 2011, the United Nations reported Wednesday. But U.N. officials cautioned that the decrease ought not be seen as a sign that Afghanistan was becoming less violent.

"They do not reflect a move towards a peaceful society," Nicholas Haysom, the deputy U.N. special representative in Afghanistan, said of the numbers. "On the contrary, the figures we are releasing today reflect an armed conflict that is exacting a toll on civilians and civilian lives similar to the levels of 2009 and 2010."

Another official called the decrease "a very hollow trend," noting that the U.S.-led coalition here had recorded more enemy attacks in June than in any other month since it began keeping statistics.

"Since so many of these attacks are impacting civilians disproportionately, you have to worry that this trend is continuing, and more attacks are simply going to mean more civilian casualties," said James Rodehaver, acting chief of the U.N. human rights unit in Afghanistan.

As with previous reports, the U.N. attributed the vast majority of civilian casualties -- in this report, 80 percent -- to Taliban actions.

The number of civilians killed and wounded in the 11-year-old war is one measure of the progress the International Security Assistance Force, as the U.S.-led coalition is known, is making toward pacifying the country. U.S. troops are scheduled to withdraw from the country by the end of 2014, and a key question is whether the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai will be able to continue to combat Taliban forces that operate widely across the nation.

The report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documented 1,145 civilians killed and 1,954 injured in the conflict between Jan. 1 and June 30.

"Anti-government elements" -- shorthand for the Taliban and other insurgent groups -- were responsible for 882 civilian deaths and for injuring 1,593, the report said. "Pro-government forces" -- shorthand for U.S.-led coalition troops and Afghan government security forces -- were responsible for 10 percent of overall casualties, killing 165 civilians and injuring 131. The U.N. said that 10 percent of civilian casualties could not be attributed to either insurgents or pro-government forces.

Of the 3,099 civilians killed or wounded, 925, or 30 percent, were women or children.

Improvised explosive device attacks by insurgents caused 33 percent of all casualties, or 327 deaths and 689 injuries, while attacks aimed at specific individuals claimed 255 civilians killed and 101 injured in 237 incidents, an increase of 53 percent.

Coalition-caused casualties totaled 165 dead and 131 wounded, a 25 percent drop. "The use of air strikes continues to cause more civilian casualties -- particularly women and children -- than any other tactic used by the international forces," Haysom said.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told McClatchy by telephone that the report was biased and that the Taliban rejected the claim that they were responsible for 80 percent of civilian casualties. He also differed with the U.N.'s definition of a civilian, saying the Taliban targeted anyone who worked for the government.

"We don't consider those who work with foreign forces or the Afghan government to be civilians," he said. "In the past, (the U.N. mission has) even counted the security guards on NATO supply convoys as civilians. I say clearly that these people aren't civilians: They are our targets. They cooperate with the enemy, they strengthen the enemy, and they help the enemy."


McClatchy special correspondent Ali Safi contributed.

By Jon Stephenson
McClatchy Newspapers