KABUL, Afghanistan — Civilian casualties in Afghanistan surged by 31 percent during the first six months of this year over the same period in 2009, driven by increased bombings and assassinations by the Taliban-led insurgency, the United Nations reported Tuesday.
Soon after the U.N. mission to Afghanistan released the report, two suicide bombers struck the offices of a private security firm in central Kabul, police said. Guards shot one attacker dead, but the second entered the Hart Security compound and detonated his explosives, killing himself and two civilian drivers, said Gen. Abdul Ghafar Sayedzada, the head of the city police's criminal investigation branch.
Civilian casualties are a major issue in the nearly nine-year-old war.
The U.S.-led international force has reduced the number of civilian casualties it's caused unintentionally as part of its strategy to curb the expanding war and boost popular support for the government of President Hamid Karzai. It also recently opened a publicity offensive to draw more attention to casualties inflicted by the insurgency.
Taliban propaganda, meanwhile, has sought to exploit civilian casualties caused by NATO's U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force in order to win recruits, fuel opposition to Karzai and his foreign supporters and obscure the much higher numbers of dead and wounded civilians that are due to insurgents.
"The human cost of this conflict is unfortunately rising," Steffan de Mistura, the head of the U.N. mission, said on releasing the report at a news conference.
Civilian casualties rose by 31 percent — there were 1,271 dead and 1,997 wounded — in the first six months of this year over the same period in 2009. Taliban-led insurgents inflicted 76 percent of those casualties through stepped-up roadside and suicide bombings and an assassination campaign, according to the report.
"Compared with the same period in 2009, the number of civilians assassinated and executed by (the insurgents) surged by more than 95 percent in 2010," the report said. It added that more than half of such incidents occurred in the Taliban stronghold of southern Afghanistan, the current focus of U.S.-led military operations.
Civilian casualties caused by coalition and Afghan security forces fell by 30 percent during the first half of this year, to 223 deaths and 160 wounded, the report said. It added that airstrikes in populous areas caused the largest share of casualties, 31 percent.
The report attributed the reduction in civilian casualties that were due to the U.S.-led coalition and its Afghan allies to a July 2009 tactical directive by retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former coalition commander, that's restricted air attacks.
President Barack Obama fired McChrystal in June because of intemperate remarks about top administration officials that McChrystal and aides made to a magazine reporter. He was replaced by Army Gen. David Petraeus, who's maintained McChrystal's tactical directive.
De Mistura acknowledged that the guidelines appear to be having an impact, but he added that the United Nations thinks that the coalition should do even more "to limit these types of casualties as much as possible to zero."
Petraeus reaffirmed a determination to reduce civilian deaths further.
"Every Afghan death diminishes our cause," he said in a statement. "While we have made progress in our efforts to reduce coalition-caused civilian casualties, we know the measure by which our mission will be judged is protecting the population from harm by either side."
The tactical directive has been unpopular with U.S. troops, who contend that it's led to higher American casualties by reducing their ability to call for close air support.
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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