Insurgents killed more Afghan civilians last year than ever before and their roadside bombs, suicide attacks and assassinations were responsible for the overwhelming majority of conflict-related deaths in 2010, the United Nations said Wednesday.
At the same time, deaths attributed to the U.S.-led coalition and Afghan security forces dropped sharply by more than a quarter despite a surge in troops and a stepped-up military campaign against the Taliban and insurgent groups, the U.N. added.
The increase in deaths reflects an escalation in battles between international forces and insurgents as the U.S.-led coalition tries to beat the Taliban out of traditional strongholds and establish government control over parts of Afghanistan that were lost in the fallow years when the focus was on the Iraq war. The fighting is expected to increase in coming months as NATO tries to hold onto its gains and force the Taliban to join peace talks.
"In a year of intensified armed conflict, with a surge of activity by pro-government forces and increased use of improvised explosive devices and assassinations by anti-government elements, Afghan civilians paid the price with their lives in even greater numbers in 2010," said Ivan Simonovic, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights.
The U.N.'s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan's annual report registered 2,777 conflict-related civilian deaths in 2010, a 15 percent increase from 2009. It said that of those deaths, insurgents were responsible for 2,080 _ a 28 percent increase from the previous year and 75 percent of the overall number. A total of 4,343 people were wounded, it said.
UNAMA said deaths attributed to the U.S.-led coalition dropped by 26 percent to 440 people in 2010. Of those deaths, air strikes were responsible for 171, a sharp 52 percent reduction from 2009 despite a significant increase in the use of air power by NATO. UNAMA could not attribute nine percent of the total deaths.
"This is the time of a military surge and we are witnessing it. We all know that there is no military solution to this conflict and we also know that this is the year that there should be a political surge. But now we are asking formally, strongly and firmly on behalf of the Afghan people that 2011 should also be a surge for the protection of civilians by all sides," said UNAMA head Staffan De Mistura.
Military officials foresee an escalation in fighting starting at the end of this month, as insurgents come back from a winter break to try and gain back territory lost late last year when the United States brought 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan. That surge brought the number of coalition forces to about 130,000, the highest number since the invasion of Afghanistan a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
NATO hopes the increased pressure will bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, although the group has refused to start talking until all foreign troops leave the country. NATO expects to hand over control for security of the country to the Afghan government by the end of 2014.
The coalition has also paid a price. NATO announced Wednesday that a roadside bomb killed one of its service members in southern Afghanistan, bring the total this month to five and to 72 so far this year _ including at least 41 Americans. Last year a record 701 international troops were killed _ of which 492 were Americans. The nationality of the service member and other details were not immediately released.
"The figures indicate that international forces have made an effort to reduce civilian casualties. However lets not forget that the whole purpose of the international engagement in Afghanistan is the protection of civilians. That is why we understand that while we are sending a strong message to the Taliban and anti-government forces we are also requesting and reminding international forces of one thing, that one civilian victim is one too many," De Mistura said.
Despite the fact that insurgents are responsible for the vast majority if killings, civilian casualties from coalition operations are a major source of strain in the already difficult relationship between President Hamid Karzai's government and the United States, and they generate widespread outrage among the population.
Karzai said during meetings here this week with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates that civilian casualties would not longer be tolerated by his government. Earlier in the week he rejected an apology from Gen. David Petraeus, the top NATO military commander, for the mistaken killing of nine boys on March 1 during an aerial attack in a remote part of eastern Afghanistan.
The report said that most of the deaths were attributed to more powerful bombs, or Improvised Explosive Devices, used by insurgents. But it also found what it called an "alarming trend" in the number of civilians assassinated by insurgents. It said 462 people were assassinated in 2010, a 105 percent increase from 2009.