Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan —
For ordinary Afghans, going about one's daily business — commuting to school or work, shopping, riding the bus — is getting more dangerous all the time.
The pace of Afghan civilian casualties accelerated sharply in the first half of this year, increasing 31%, with women and children bearing the brunt of spiraling violence, the United Nations said Tuesday.
However, the Western military and its Afghan allies were responsible for a significantly smaller proportion of deaths than previously, with insurgents blamed for roughly three-quarters of the fatalities, the U.N. mission in Afghanistan said.
Most of the civilian casualties — nearly 1,300 dead and almost 2,000 injured — were caused by improvised bombs, which are also the principal killer of NATO troops. Insurgents are building not only more bombs, but more powerful ones, the U.N. said.
That means Afghans are at risk when they engage in the most mundane of activities, essentially anything that involves leaving their homes. On Tuesday, coinciding with the release of the U.N. report, a suicide bombing in a residential neighborhood in central Kabul killed at least three people, authorities said.
The jump in insurgent-caused casualties, up more than 50% from the same period a year ago, may have prompted the Taliban to recently issue a "code of conduct" that discourages the indiscriminate killing of civilians.
However, that code also instructs the movement's fighters to target Afghans who work with the government or with Western forces; such assassinations have doubled so far this year.
"These figures show that the Taliban are resorting to desperate measures, increasingly executing and assassinating civilians, including teachers, doctors, civil servants and tribal elders," said Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The Taliban is locked in something of a public relations war with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which in recent weeks has been issuing near-daily accounts of civilian deaths at insurgents' hands, at a pace approaching that of its battlefield reports.
On the one hand, the Taliban routinely claims responsibility for atrocities such as the killing of a Christian charity's 10-member medical team last week. But the insurgents also sometimes angrily contest government or media accounts of cruel punishments meted out to civilians for alleged offenses under Islamic law.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force said the U.N. figures reflected strenuous efforts to bring down civilian casualties. It said the world body's figures tracked with its own statistics.
The U.N. mission's director of human rights, Georgette Gagnon, called on all parties to do more to safeguard the lives of noncombatants.
"The devastating human impact of these events underscores that … measures to protect Afghan civilians effectively and minimize the impact of the conflict on basic human rights are more urgent than ever," she said.
The greatest numbers of lethal attacks took place in the south, the Taliban's traditional heartland, where deaths increased by 43%, the U.N. said.
Most arriving American troops are being deployed in volatile Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where the majority of both civilian and military deaths occur.