Afghans carry an injured man to a hospital after a suicde attack in Jalalabad… (Rahmat Gul, Associated…)
KABUL, Afghanistan — Civilian deaths in the war in Afghanistan dropped in 2012 for the first time in six years, a sign of lessening hostilities, but insurgents dramatically expanded their campaign of assassinating government supporters, the United Nations said Tuesday.
The annual U.N. report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan documented a 12% decline in deaths, largely because of fewer ground operations, new limits on airstrikes by U.S.-led coalition forces and fewer suicide bombings by insurgents. Coalition operations resulted in 39% fewer civilian deaths, the report said.
A harsh winter that limited combat operations and insurgent movements also contributed to the decline as the 11-year conflict shifted to a new phase in which foreign forces are stepping back and Afghan soldiers and police, who possess less deadly weapons, are almost entirely in the lead.
In another sign of the changing conflict, the number of drone airstrikes rose by 72%, indicating that the United States and its allies were expanding their arsenal against terrorist targets even with fewer troops in the country.
The U.N. documented five drone strikes that killed 16 civilians and injured three; a year earlier it found only one such incident. One of the strikes last year killed four children, ages 11 to 13, in the eastern province of Logar after a nearby clash between coalition forces and insurgents, suggesting a targeting error, the report said.
In all, 2,754 civilians died in the war last year, bringing the toll to 14,728 since 2007, when the U.N. began tracking civilian casualties.
The report said that targeted killings — attacks against government employees, tribal and religious leaders, and Afghans involved in peace efforts — caused more than twice as many deaths and injuries in 2012 as in 2011, apparently because Taliban-led insurgents increased their use of homemade bombs that spread damage over a wider area.
U.N. officials said they were particularly disturbed by a sevenfold increase in casualties among government workers.
"Steep increases in the deliberate targeting of civilians perceived to be supporting the government demonstrates another grave violation of international humanitarian law," Jan Kubis, the U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, said in a statement. He said the Taliban leaders' promises to protect civilians so far amounted to "only words."
Insurgents caused 81% of civilian casualties last year, compared with 72% in 2011, the report said, with improvised bombs being the single deadliest weapon.
Civilian deaths and injuries from operations by U.S.-led international forces and Afghan soldiers and police fell 46%, the U.N. said, largely because of new restrictions by coalition commanders on airstrikes on residential dwellings.
Still, a NATO airstrike last week in the eastern province of Kunar reportedly killed 10 civilians in addition to four Taliban commanders, provoking fresh ire from President Hamid Karzai. The Afghan leader on Monday ordered his country's security forces "not to request foreign airstrikes on residential areas," a move that could further reduce civilian deaths but also hinder Afghan forces that have no air power of their own.
U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the coalition commander, said this week that his forces could continue to operate effectively despite Karzai's order. The order doesn't apply to unilateral NATO operations, but experts say that in practice it could give U.S. forces cover for stepping back even further from combat operations as the Obama administration seeks to withdraw half the remaining 66,000 American troops from Afghanistan by next February.
The U.N. report suggested, however, that violence would continue despite the departure of foreign troops. Civilian casualties in the second half of 2012 rose 13% from the previous year, amid the withdrawal of the last of 30,000 additional U.S. troops sent in a buildup. The report cited more insurgent bombings and combat in parts of Afghanistan.