Afghanistan has suffered “a troubling rise” in killings of civilians, with the figure surging almost 30% in the first three months of the year, according to a United Nations envoy.
Despite the sobering statistic, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday that other facts “highlight the improved security across the country,” including dramatic increases in the number of children in school and the share of Afghans who have access to healthcare.
The death toll is being closely watched because Afghan forces are slated to take over responsibility for securing the country ahead of the departure of most foreign troops in 2014. The latest figures were released as Afghanistan faces the seasonal resurgence of heavier fighting, triggered by warmer weather that eases militants’ movements through mountain passes.
Jan Kubis, the U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, told NATO foreign ministers meeting Tuesday in Brussels that he was particularly troubled that the Taliban had declared courthouses and their personnel targets. Attacks this month on a courthouse and government offices in western Afghanistan were “nothing less than a war crime,” he said.
Overall, 475 civilians were killed from January through March of this year, Kubis said. Last year, civilian casualties fell 12%.
Nonetheless, Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., commander of the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, said Wednesday that the insurgency was losing relevancy for many Afghans. The bulk of the attacks – 80% -- occur in areas where fewer than 20% of Afghans live, he said in a statement.
As Afghan forces take control of security nationwide, Dunford said, “the insurgency can no longer use the justification that it is fighting foreign occupiers – that message rings hollow.”
Afghans protecting Afghans “will continue to undermine the influence and effectiveness of the insurgency,” Dunford said.