The number of Afghan civilians killed in US and NATO airstrikes dropped by nearly half last year to 126, the UN said yesterday. The report came a day after Afghan President Hamid Karzai banned government forces from requesting foreign air support during operations in residential areas.
The overall civilian death toll last year also declined some 12 percent to 2,754, compared with 3,131 the previous year, according to an annual report by the UN Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) that tracks statistics in the 11-year-old war.
While it was the first reduction in casualties in six years, the UN expressed concern about a spike in targeted killings and human rights abuses by armed groups.
Insurgent attacks on government employees soared by 700 percent last year, the report said, adding that the targeted killings of women in government service by Taliban-led insurgents was disturbing.
“Particularly disturbing were targeted killings of women by anti-government elements demonstrated by the killings of the head and deputy head of the Laghman Department of Women’s Affairs in July and December 2012,” the report said.
It also said the number of Afghan women and girls killed and injured in the conflict increased by 20 percent last year.
The report was released as anger remained high over an airstrike last week in northeastern Kunar Province that killed five children, four women and one man along with four insurgents. Angry that the strike was requested by his national intelligence service, Karzai on Monday ordered government troops to stop asking for foreign air support in residential areas.
The Taliban and other insurgents increasingly targeted civilians throughout the country and were responsible for 81 percent of the civilian casualties last year, the UN said. The report said that so-called anti-government elements killed 2,179 civilians and wounded 3,952, a 9 percent increase in casualties from 2011.
By contrast, the number blamed on US and allied forces decreased by 46 percent, with 316 killed and 271 wounded.
The top UN envoy in Afghanistan, Jan Kubis, welcomed the decline in casualties, but said “the human cost of the conflict remains unacceptable.”
The steep increase in the targeting of civilians perceived to be supporting the government was “another grave violation of international humanitarian law,” he said.
“Particularly appalling is the use of suicide attacks including those carried out by brainwashed children to murder civilians which is also a clear breach of the norms of Islam,” he said.
The Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman also said the decrease was a positive sign and pledged to do everything possible to stop the insurgents from attacking civilians.
“They’re still using suicide bombers, they still use IEDs [roadside bombs] in the very populated areas and they still use civilians as a shield in the villages,” Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi said. “The important thing is that civilian should be decreased to zero.”
The UNAMA report attributed the overall drop in civilian casualties to a decline in suicide attacks, reduced numbers of airstrikes and other measures taken by the US-led coalition and the government.
It also cited “an unseasonably harsh winter which impeded insurgent movements and effects of earlier military operations against anti-government elements” and said the number of civilian casualties actually rose in the last half of the year.