KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — After more than five years of increasingly intense warfare, the conflict in Afghanistan reached a grim milestone in the first half of this year: U.S. troops and their NATO allies killed more civilians than insurgents did, according to several independent tallies.
The upsurge in deaths at the hands of Western forces has been driven by Taliban tactics as well as by actions of the American military and its allies.
But the growing toll is causing widespread disillusionment among the Afghan people, eroding support for the government of President Hamid Karzai and exacerbating political rifts among NATO allies about the nature and goals of the mission in Afghanistan.
More than 500 Afghan civilians have been reported killed this year, and the rate has dramatically increased in the last month.
In some instances, it was difficult to determine whether the dead were combatants or noncombatants. But in many other cases, there was no doubt that the person killed was a bystander to war.
Still, Western military leaders argue that any comparison of casualties caused by Western forces and by the Taliban is fundamentally unfair because there is a clear moral distinction to be made between accidental deaths resulting from combat operations and deliberate killings of innocents by militants.
"No [Western] soldier ever wakes up in the morning with the intention of harming any Afghan citizen," said Maj. John Thomas, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. "If that does inadvertently happen, it is deeply, deeply regretted."
Moreover, alliance officials say Taliban fighters are ultimately to blame for many of the fatalities attributed to coalition military operations because the insurgents deliberately place civilians in harm's way, using them as human shields and employing other brutal tactics.
Human rights groups acknowledge that there are mitigating circumstances. But to the families of victims such as Azizullah the salt merchant, such distinctions are lost in a wave of grief and indignation.
At dawn on June 16, Azizullah went to prayers with his older brother, Mohammed Reza. It was the last time Reza saw his younger brother alive.
At midmorning, Reza received a call on his cellphone from Afghan police saying Azizullah had been wounded, then another saying that he had died, shot by North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops as he sipped a cool drink a few steps from his storefront in a rundown district of Kabul.
"Why? Why?" Reza asked. "They are supposed to protect us, not kill us."
In a communal society such as Afghanistan, "no death is isolated," said Hekmat Karzai, who runs a security think tank in Kabul and is a cousin of the president. "When one person dies, it affects a whole village or clan or tribe. Ultimately, it affects everyone, and there's no escaping that."
By late June, the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, working with local rights groups, had counted 314 civilian deaths at the hands of Western-led forces and 279 people killed by the Taliban and other militants. But that figure did not include at least 45 civilian deaths reported by local officials last weekend in Helmand province's Gereshk district.
Separate counts by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the Associated Press differed slightly, but also indicated that more civilians were killed by Western troops than by militants during the first half of 2007.
On June 23, in response to the deaths of more than 100 noncombatants in a single week that were blamed on Western artillery or airstrikes in southern Afghanistan, President Karzai unleashed an angry call for caution by U.S. and NATO forces.
"Afghan life is not cheap, and it should not be treated as such," the Afghan president told reporters in Kabul.
Aides said Karzai believed that his language, the sharpest to date on the subject, was the only way to get the attention of Western policymakers after repeated appeals had gone unanswered.
Neither NATO nor U.S. forces keep a tally of civilian deaths, but Thomas said the military did not dispute the figures cited by Karzai. All sides, however, acknowledge that counting casualties is an inexact science.
Because Taliban fighters do not wear military uniforms, they can be as difficult to identify in death as in life. Much of the fighting takes place in remote, rugged areas that are difficult for independent investigators to reach.
NATO and U.S. military officials say that when in doubt, human rights groups sometimes count ambiguous cases among the civilian dead, a contention sharply disputed by the investigators.
"There is always a margin of error, but no one is interested in inflating these figures," said Anja de Beer, the director of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, a consortium of humanitarian groups that also tallies civilian deaths.