The number of civilians killed and wounded in the Afghan war rose 14 percent annually last year, the UN said yesterday, with the death toll almost reaching the record set in 2011.
The rise in the number of civilians killed or wounded in the crossfire between government and Taliban-led insurgent forces was a marked new trend last year, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in its annual report.
UNAMA put this down to the reduction of ground and air operations by the US-led NATO forces as they start to withdraw after more than a decade of war.
Afghan forces have been taking an increasingly leading role in the fight against the Taliban ahead of the coalition pullout. About 58,000 NATO-led combat troops still in Afghanistan are due to leave by the end of the year.
The UN report voiced concern over civilians suffering beatings, looting and summary executions at the hands of Afghan forces.
A total of 8,615 civilian casualties were recorded last year — 2,959 killed and 5,656 wounded — up 14 percent from 2012. The 7 percent rise in deaths from 2012 and 17 percent jump in injuries reverse the declines recorded last year from 2011. Last year’s death toll almost matches the peak figure of 3,133 recorded in 2011, while the conflict has claimed the lives of 14,064 civilians over the past five years.
The mission attributed the vast majority — 74 percent — of civilian deaths and injuries to “anti-government elements” led by the Taliban.
The number of civilians killed or wounded in crossfire during ground battles rose 43 percent in 2012, with 534 dead and 1,793 wounded. Only improvised explosive devices, the Taliban’s weapon of choice, caused more civilian casualties, the report said.
UNAMA said the new trend reflected the “changing dynamics of the conflict” as NATO hands over security duties to the Afghans.
“The fifth and final transfer of security responsibility from international military forces to Afghan security forces began in June 2013 and left security gaps in some areas that Afghan forces had not yet filled,” the report said. “As a result, certain areas were vulnerable to attack by anti-government elements which often led to civilian casualties.”
The worrying trend underlines the challenges faced by local forces as their better-equipped foreign partners leave and comes as Washington and Kabul squabble over a proposed security deal that would allow some US forces to stay on beyond this year.
Washington is proposing that 5,000 to 10,000 US soldiers be deployed from next year to train and assist Afghan security forces in their battle against the Taliban, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said that before he signs the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement, the US must stop military operations and bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Karzai, who has ruled the country since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, has suggested that a decision on whether to sign the deal would fall to his successor, to be chosen in elections due on April 5.
The Taliban has threatened to target the campaign and the Afghan police and army face a major challenge to hold the elections with minimal support from the dwindling number of NATO troops.
The mission recorded 25 attacks on election workers and facilities last year, resulting in four civilian deaths.
“Current risk assessments indicate that insecurity will impact participation of civilians in the 2014 elections in some areas,” the report said.
The paper also voiced concern at what it called “verified reports” of rights violations by Afghan national security forces.
It highlighted an incident in Kunduz Province where it said a dozen people were beaten for supposedly supporting the insurgency.
“Pro-government armed groups, in full view of Afghan national security forces, carried out house-to-house searches, looting homes of mobile phones, cash, gold, jewelery, school materials, crops and livestock,” it said.
It also reiterated longstanding concerns about the Afghan Local Police, branded by critics as a thuggish militia.
The report said civilian casualties attributed to the police group tripled from 2012 to 121 last year, with 32 killed and 89 wounded.
It said most of these came from group members carrying out “summary executions, punishments and revenge actions.”