Afghan villagers gather at a house destroyed in an apparent NATO raid in… (Ihsanullah Majroh / 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 civilian deaths, largely due to 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 drop in casualties as the 11-year conflict shifts to a new phase in which foreign forces step back and Afghan soldiers and police, who possess less-deadly weapons, are almost entirely in the lead.
In all, 2,754 civilians died in the war last year, bringing the death toll to 14,728 since 2007, when the U.N. began tracking civilian casualties.
But the report said targeted killings -- attacks against government employees, tribal and religious leaders and Afghans involved in peace efforts -- resulted in more than twice as many deaths and injuries in 2012, in part 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 seven-fold increase in casualties among government workers, including the murders of the two top officials in the women's affairs department in Laghman province, east of Kabul.
"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 were responsible for 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 by 46%, the U.N. said, due largely to new restrictions by coalition commanders on airstrikes on residential dwellings.
Still, a NATO airstrike last week in eastern Kunar province 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.
Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the coalition commander, said this week that his forces would comply with Karzai's order and could continue to operate effectively. The order does not 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 of the remaining 66,000 American troops from Afghanistan by next February.
[Updated, 6:15 a.m. Feb. 19: The U.N. report suggested that violence would continue despite the departure of foreign troops. Civilian casualties in the second half of 2012 rose by 13% from the previous year -- despite the withdrawal of the last of 33,000 U.S. "surge" troops -- due to more insurgent bombings in public areas and intensified combat in parts of Afghanistan, the report said.]