Afghan civilian deaths in 2009 were most since invasion, U.N. says

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War’s violence claimed the lives of more than 2,400 Afghan civilians in 2009, the United Nations said Wednesday, the largest annual death toll for noncombatants since the U.S.-led invasion eight years ago.

But the proportion of civilian deaths attributed to Western and Afghan security forces dropped sharply in the wake of strict new rules of engagement issued in the summer by U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of Western forces in Afghanistan.

Citing the public fury stirred up by civilian deaths, and the resulting corrosive effect on the Western war effort, McChrystal ordered troops to break off engagements with insurgents if there was a risk of killing or injuring civilians, taking only measures needed for self-defense.

Like the civilian deaths, military fatalities reached record levels last year. On Wednesday, military officials reported the deaths of four more American service members and of a soldier from an undisclosed allied country.

Multiple battlefield fatalities in a single day were once a relative rarity, but Wednesday was the second day in a row that Western forces had reported five military deaths.

The report by the human rights division of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan illustrated the extraordinary dangers faced by Afghan civilians in their daily lives. The overall toll represented a 14% increase in war-related civilian fatalities from 2008.

In cities, towns and villages across the country, the pace of suicide attacks and roadside bombings has accelerated steadily, and ordinary activities such as driving to work or shopping in a street market have become increasingly perilous.

The pattern of deaths also mapped the reach and intensity of the conflict. Almost half of the civilian fatalities occurred in a swath of the south, where the insurgency is strongest and fighting has been fiercest. But violence crept into some previously calm areas, such as the country’s north.

Military officials acknowledge that fighting is likely to escalate in coming months with the arrival of about 30,000 more U.S. troops and an additional 7,000 from North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies and other countries. Some of the reinforcements will push into previously insurgent-held areas, which will translate into more battlefield activity, commanders have said.

Military officials have been talking for several months about the decreasing instances of Western troops mistakenly killing civilians, and the U.N. report appeared to bear that out. It blamed insurgents for about 70% of the 2,412 recorded deaths.

About 25% were attributed to Western or Afghan security forces, and responsibility could not be determined in the other cases, according to the report.

NATO commanders have maintained that they take all possible measures to avoid harming noncombatants, and accuse insurgents of not only killing indiscriminately but deliberately placing civilians in harm’s way by using populated areas as staging grounds for attacks.

But the issue of civilian deaths has become so sensitive that foreign forces are often blamed even for those deaths in which the circumstances clearly implicate the Taliban and other militant groups.

“International forces have to combat the perception among many Afghans that they don’t care if innocent people suffer harm during military action,” said Sarah Holewinski, the executive director of the Washington-based Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, which works to obtain restitution for the families of those who are killed and injured, or suffer property losses.

Both sides are well aware that noncombatant deaths are a potent propaganda tool. The Taliban leadership over the summer issued a code of conduct urging fighters to try to avoid harming civilians. Western military officials scoffed at the idea that the insurgents are taking serious steps to protect noncombatants, but acknowledged that the Taliban may be mirroring the allies’ own counterinsurgency tenets.

Civilian deaths are most common when suicide bombers try to strike Western convoys or well-fortified government installations and military bases, taking a devastating toll on unprotected bystanders.

But the report noted that insurgents also target figures such as tribal elders considered pro-government, or Afghan officials and even doctors and teachers, accusing them of complicity with the West.

In previous years, noncombatant deaths blamed on foreign forces were often the result of airstrikes, now curtailed under McChrystal’s rules of engagement. Western commanders have also worked to train troops to find nonlethal means of dealing with perceived threats, such as an Afghan motorist who might be either preparing to ram a military convoy with his explosives-filled vehicle, or simply driving carelessly.