Afghan children pass German soldiers in northern Afghanistan. Civilian… (Fabrizio Bensch, Reuters )
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — A spreading conflict is causing increased civilian casualties and displacement across Afghanistan, the head of a major humanitarian organization said Wednesday in a grim year-end assessment.
The U.S. has made protecting civilian lives a key component of its strategy to bolster popular support for the Afghan government and its security forces, lessen the appeal of the Taliban and stabilize the country enough to withdraw troops by 2014.
The primary cause of civilian casualties was the homemade roadside bombs set by the Taliban, said Reto Stocker, head of the Afghan mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The bombs target international and Afghan military vehicles, but inadvertently strike passersby.
"We see that the proliferation of armed groups threatens the ability of humanitarian organizations to access people in need of our help and deserving our help," he said.
Just hours before Stocker spoke, a remote-controlled bomb attached to a bicycle killed three children and injured nine other people in the southern city of Kandahar, the epicenter of the Taliban insurgency, according to news releases.
But Stocker also said that North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes and checkpoint killings by international forces were contributing to civilian casualties. NATO's International Security Assistance Force said it dispatched investigators to the southern province of Helmand on Wednesday to examine an incident a day earlier in which aircraft on a close air support mission accidentally killed a civilian and wounded two children.
Stocker said Afghanistan's Red Cross and its local partners had helped 140,000 displaced people this year, up about 25% from 2009. The Red Cross-operated Mirwais hospital in Kandahar admitted 2,650 patients with weapons-related wounds in 2010, compared with 2,110 in 2009.
The Swiss-based group, whose duties include checking on prisoners and providing medical assistance, drinking water and relocation services, has not been able to properly assess the humanitarian situation in some rural stretches because the roads have become too dangerous. With 1,750 local and expatriate staff, 40,000 volunteers and extensive contacts with local authorities, international forces and the Taliban, the Red Cross' Afghanistan mission is its most robust worldwide.
"Access for the ICRC has over the last 30 years never been as poor and difficult as in Afghanistan," Stocker said.
Ordinary people, many simple farmers struggling to eke out a living from plots of arid soil, find themselves caught between the Afghan government, international forces and various insurgent groups.
"Out in the rural villages in conflict-afflicted areas, there might be an armed group visiting a family in the evening asking to be sheltered or asking to receive food," Stocker said. "The very next morning another group might come challenging the very family asking why the enemy has been sheltered."
He acknowledged that civilians bore far more violence during the brutal Soviet occupation of the 1980s, when airstrikes flattened entire villages, and the subsequent civil war of the 1990s, when various factions pummeled residential neighborhoods of Kabul, the capital, with artillery.
"The number of civilian casualties was much higher than anything that we are observing today," he said.