Last year was the deadliest yet for Afghan civilians in nearly a decade of warfare, the United Nations said Wednesday in a report that painted a picture of growing insecurity in cities and towns across the country.
The U.N. mission in Afghanistan put the number of civilians killed last year at 2,777, a 15% increase from the previous year. About three-quarters of those deaths were caused by insurgents, the report said.
Most of the civilian casualties were capriciously random in nature, with hundreds of people dying in suicide attacks or roadside bombings. But the report also noted an ominous trend: a doubling in the number of assassinations of government officials, tribal elders and other prominent figures. These targeted killings are viewed as an unambiguous warning by insurgents against cooperating with the administration of President Hamid Karzai or with the Western military force.
Civilian deaths and injuries were concentrated in the principal conflict zones — the south and east — but touched all areas of the country. And they increased in some areas that had been considered relatively peaceful, such as the north.
The report, issued jointly with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, coincides with a series of upbeat public assessments by senior American and other Western officials, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who have highlighted military gains in recent months against the Taliban and other militant groups.
But fighting between the Taliban and the NATO force is likely to intensify as the weather improves, and the U.N. voiced concern that civilians would find themselves caught in the crossfire.
As it did in the previous year, the report charted a drop in the proportion of deaths — to 26% — caused by the Western military. But the current year already has seen several high-profile instances of casualties at the hands of the NATO force, including nine boys killed last week as they gathered firewood on a mountainside. Gates apologized to Karzai during a visit this week for the deaths of the boys, who were hunted down by helicopter gunships after being mistaken for insurgents who had attacked a U.S. base.
Western military officials often express frustration over the degree of anger directed at the foreign forces over civilian casualties when it is insurgents who cause by far the greatest number of deaths and injuries.
"Of course, there is a great difference between deliberately targeting civilians and civilians as collateral victims," said Ivan Simonovic, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights, who came to Kabul to present the findings. "But every loss of civilian life calls for transparent and thorough investigation."
Simonovic, speaking to journalists in Kabul, noted that Afghan life expectancy is only 45 years, a statistic driven in part by war-related violence. Civilian deaths and injuries have climbed steadily over the last four years as the Taliban movement has regrouped and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force has grown in size and strength, now totaling 150,000 troops.
"The increase in the number of civilians killed year after year is deeply disturbing," Simonovic said. The report calls on all parties to take steps to reduce the likelihood of noncombatants being killed or maimed.