Tue, Mar 03, 2009 - Page 5 News List

Afghan civilians could bear brunt of increased fighting


Afghan civilians will bear the brunt of an escalation in the Afghan war this year as thousands more US troops deploy, unless more is done by NATO forces and Taliban militants to protect them, a top Red Cross official said yesterday.

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan are “significantly higher” today than a year ago, and an intensification of the conflict this year could mean that consequences for many more Afghans will be “dire in the extreme,” said Pierre Krahenbuhl, the director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

“The daily lives of people living in areas where the fighting is taking place are being disrupted, be it because of airstrikes, night raids, suicide attacks, the use of IEDs [improvised explosive devices], or because of intimidation and the population being pressurized or co-opted by the different parties to this conflict,” he said.

The UN last month said 2,118 civilians died in the Afghan conflict last year, a 40 percent jump over 2007. The world body said insurgent attacks caused 55 percent of those deaths, while US, NATO or government forces caused 39 percent of the deaths. The remaining 6 percent were caused in crossfire.

Krahenbuhl met with General David McKiernan, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Major-General Jeffrey Schloesser, commander of US forces in eastern Afghanistan, over the issue of civilian casualties.

Krahenbuhl said he emphasized to the US commanders the “constant obligation” to distinguish between “those participating in hostilities and those who do not.”

Both US generals were receptive to the ICRC’s concerns, he said.

Krahenbuhl also met Taliban representatives during his six-day visit and told them of the “severe impact” that suicide attacks in crowds, the use of roadside bombs and rocket attacks have on civilians.

In an interview that aired on Sunday on CNN, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Western forces alone would not defeat the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, and that the US needed a viable exit plan before asking other countries to do more there.

“Frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency,” Harper said. “My reading of Afghanistan history is that’s it’s probably had an insurgency forever of some kind.”

Canadian and other NATO troops have made some gains against the insurgents over the years but those gains are not irreversible and the overall success has been modest, Harper said.

“What has to happen in Afghanistan is we have to have an Afghan government that is capable of managing that insurgency,” he said.

If a foreign power is perceived as the source of authority, “it will always have a significant degree of opposition,” he said.

Harper’s comments are not a radical departure from his past observations, but he has rarely been so blunt in assessing the situation.

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