The number of civilians killed and wounded by violence in Afghanistan dropped 15 percent in the first six months of the year, compared to the same period in 2011, the United Nations reported Wednesday. But U.N. officials cautioned that the decrease ought not to be seen as a sign that Afghanistan was becoming less violent.
“They do not reflect a move towards a peaceful society,” said Nicholas Haysom, the deputy U.N. special representative in Afghanistan. “On the contrary, the figures we are releasing today reflect an armed conflict that is exacting a toll on civilians and civilian lives similar to the levels of 2009 and 2010.”
Another official called the decrease “a very hollow trend,” noting that the U.S.-led coalition here had recorded more enemy attacks in June than in any other month since it began keeping statistics.
“Since so many of these attacks are impacting civilians disproportionately you have to worry that this trend is continuing, and more attacks are simply going to mean more civilian casualties,” said James Rodehaver, acting chief of the U.N. human rights unit in Afghanistan.
As with previous reports, the U.N. attributed the vast majority of civilian casualties – in this report, 80 percent – to Taliban actions.
The number of civilians killed and wounded in the 11-year-old war is one measure of the progress the International Security Assistance Force, as the U.S.-led coalition is known, is making toward pacifying the country. U.S. troops are scheduled to have withdrawn from the country by the end of 2014, and a key question is whether the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai will be able to continue to combat Taliban forces that continue to operate widely across the nation.
The report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documented 1,145 civilians killed and 1,954 injured in the conflict between Jan. 1 and June 30. “Anti-government elements” – shorthand for the Taliban and other insurgent groups – were responsible for 882 civilian deaths and for injuring 1,593, the report said.
“Pro-government forces” – shorthand for U.S.-led coalition troops and Afghan government security forces – were responsible for 10 percent of overall casualties, killing 165 civilians and injuring 131. The U.N. said that 10 percent of civilian casualties could not be attributed to either insurgents or pro-government forces.
Of the 3,099 civilians killed or wounded, 925, or 30 percent, were women or children.
The report said the number of civilian casualties attributed to Taliban actions was down 15 percent, while those caused by the coalition and Afghan government forces – 165 dead, 131 wounded – dropped 25 percent. “The use of air strikes continues to cause more civilian casualties – particularly women and children – than any other tactic used by the international forces,” Haysom said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told McClatchy by telephone that the report was biased and that the Taliban rejected the claim that they were responsible for 80 percent of civilian casualties. He credited Taliban steps to reduce the number of civilian casualties they caused for the overall drop in casualties.
“The mujahideen have taken very serious measures to prevent any civilian casualties compared to previous years,” he said, referring to Taliban fighters by the word for Islamic holy warriors. “That is why the civilian casualties have been reduced in Afghanistan compared to previous years.”
He blamed the U.S.-led coalition for the bulk of civilian deaths and injuries. “The coalition drops huge bombs on villages and houses which are much heavier than IEDs and cause more damage,” he said, referring to roadside bombs by the military acronym for improvised explosive devices.
Haysom said there was little evidence that the Taliban was taking steps to reduce civilian casualties, blaming “the vast majority of civilian casualties” on the Taliban’s use of “indiscriminate tactics such as pressure-plate IEDs, suicide attacks, and targeted killings of civilians.” Rodehaver said that IED attacks by insurgents caused 33 percent of all casualties, or 327 deaths and 689 injuries.
The U.N. said that civilian casualties from targeted killings by insurgents increased by 53 percent in 2012, with 255 civilians killed and 101 injured in 237 incidents. Those targeted included “persons accused of supporting the government or international military forces, as well as officials, workers, contractors, community and tribal elders, and men and women who have actively pursued peace and reconciliation,” Haysom said.
“In the last month alone, there have been five instances of attacks targeting imams (Islamic spiritual leaders) in mosques or during Ramadan (the Muslim holy month). This is indicative of an alarming trend towards targeted killings of civilians.”
The report also accused insurgents of increasingly interfering in the Afghan education system, listing 34 attacks against schools including cases of burning school buildings, targeted killings and intimidation of teachers, and armed attacks on schools – especially girls’ schools.
Taliban spokesman Mujahid said the Taliban rejected the claim that they were targeting civilians or spiritual leaders and attacking schools. He added, however, that the Taliban targeted “anyone who works for the Kabul government” because “we don’t consider those who work with foreign forces or the Afghan government to be civilians.”
“In the past, (UNAMA) have even counted the security guards on NATO supply convoys as civilians. I say clearly that these people aren’t civilians: they are our targets. They cooperate with the enemy, they strengthen the enemy, and they help the enemy.”
McClatchy special correspondent Ali Safi contributed.