Afghan men carry the coffin of an alleged victim of a NATO raid in Khowst province. (Noor Shah, EPA )
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — The Afghan war claimed 15% more civilian lives in the first half of this year than in the same period a year ago, the United Nations said in a report Thursday that painted a picture of deteriorating safety across the country.
The grim figures contrast with the relatively upbeat security assessments presented recently by senior U.S. military officials as an American troop drawdown gets underway.
The U.N. said it had documented 1,462 civilian deaths from January to June, four-fifths of them caused by insurgents. The report singles out the "dramatic growth" in the use of so-called improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, whose pressure plates can be tripped even by the weight of a child.
"Afghan children, women and men continue to be killed and injured at an alarming rate," said Staffan de Mistura, head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan.
Violence has soared in the last two months with the advent of the "fighting season," which arrives with warmer weather.
The number of security incidents hit an all-time high in June, including the largest number of IED attacks recorded in a single month, the report says. May saw 368 civilian deaths, the largest number since the U.N. began tracking noncombatant fatalities five years ago. June had nearly as many, with 360.
Although Western troops are responsible for a much smaller share of civilian deaths than are insurgents, public anger over these fatalities tends to be more pronounced. Fourteen percent of the deaths were blamed on the NATO force and its Afghan allies, and responsibility for the remainder could not be determined.
Civilian casualties have been a major point of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Western militaries, and a new dispute erupted Thursday in Khowst province, on the border with Pakistan. Provincial spokesman Mobariz Zadran said six civilians, including an 11-year-old girl, were killed in a NATO-led night raid, sparking an angry demonstration in the province's capital.
Protesters chanting anti-U.S. slogans carried the bodies through the streets of Khowst city. The NATO force said the incident was being investigated.
Over the last year, Western commanders have been increasingly reliant on air power, and the new civilian casualty figures reflect that. The report says airstrikes were the leading cause of civilian deaths attributed to the NATO force, with strikes from helicopters in particular taking an increasing toll.
Earlier this year, after U.S. helicopter gunners mistakenly killed nine young boys gathering firewood on a hillside in eastern Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus ordered a training review for helicopter crews and those who direct and deploy them.
Even in parts of the country where the U.S. military has cited significant progress, including Kandahar and Helmand provinces, civilians feel trapped between the warring parties. At a news conference in Kabul, the capital, Georgette Gagnon, director of human rights for the U.N. mission, read out a commentary from a resident of Marja, the scene of a major U.S. Marine-led offensive 17 months ago.
"The Taliban come to any house they please, by force," the resident told the U.N. researchers. "Then they fire from the house, and then [Western and Afghan troops] fire at the house. But if I tell the Taliban not to enter, the Taliban will kill me."
"So what is the answer?" he asked. "People cannot live like this."