THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India -- Civilian deaths in the conflict in Afghanistan rose sharply last year, nearing the record levels of bloodletting reached in 2011 as Afghan security forces stepped up operations andTaliban-led insurgents continued to target innocents, according to U.N. statistics released Saturday.
Despite U.S.-led efforts to wind down the war, the annual U.N. report showed that more women and children died in conflict-related violence than in any year since 2009 as more ground combat occurred in populated areas and insurgents increased their use of improvised bombs in public places.
The statistics were a grim reversal from 2012, which saw civilian deaths decline for the first time in six years. The total of 2,959 deaths recorded by the U.N. in 2013 was a 7% rise from 2012 and brought the number of civilians killed since 2009 to more than 14,000. An additional 5,656 Afghan civilians were injured in 2013, a 17% increase from 2012.
While anti-government militants were blamed for the clear majority of civilian deaths, in line with previous years, deaths attributed to Afghan and international forces rose by 59%, the report said. As Afghan forces have taken the lead in nearly all military operations, the report suggested that the country's nascent army and paramilitary forces needed to do more to protect civilians caught up in fighting.
Ground operations led by Afghan forces killed or injured 349 civilians, an increase of 264%, the report found.
The Afghan Local Police, a largely U.S.-financed paramilitary force intended to serve as the front line against the Taliban in rural areas, killed or maimed 121 civilians, nearly triple the number from the previous year. The force is expanding even as the U.N. report warned of ALP members "committing summary executions and punishments, intimidation, harassment and illegal searches."
"Afghan security forces' lead responsibility for security brings with it increased responsibility for civilian protection," said Jan Kubis, the ranking U.N. official in Kabul. "It is critically important for Afghan forces to take all possible measures to protect civilians from the harms of conflict."
Civilian casualties from air operations by U.S.-led international forces fell by 10%, continuing the previous year's decline and reflecting what coalition officials describe as more advanced targeting as well as tougher restrictions on airstrikes demanded by Afghan PresidentHamid Karzai.
The report noted, however, that nearly three-quarters of civilian deaths were attributed to Taliban-led insurgents despite continual pledges by the group's leaders to avoid civilian casualties. While assassinations of pro-government individuals and religious leaders continued to rise, most of the Taliban attacks were described as indiscriminate, such as bombings of public places and direct targeting of government buildings where everyday Afghans regularly gather, according to the report.
"Statements on protecting civilians by the Taliban leadership are not nearly enough to end the killing and injuring of innocent Afghan civilians," Kubis said.