REPORTING FROM KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghan civilian casualties have reached a grim new milestone, with a record 3,021 noncombatants killed in wartime violence last year, the United Nations said in a report released Saturday.
The toll for 2011 represented an 8% increase from the previous year and marked the fifth year in a row that the number of noncombatant deaths and injuries has risen. Insurgents were blamed for nearly four-fifths of the deaths.
“For much too long, Afghan civilians have paid the highest price of war,” said Jan Kubis, head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan. He called on all parties to the conflict to take urgent steps to protect civilians.
The rising civilian toll calls into question Western military assertions that overall violence is declining across Afghanistan. Last year saw a drop in the number of NATO troop fatalities after military deaths hit a wartime high in 2010.
Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, were the biggest killer of civilians, the report said. For ordinary Afghans, the crude bombs are a deadly scourge, making travel on rural roads particularly perilous.
Roadside bombs also claim more military lives than any other single cause. But insurgents plant the devices indiscriminately, often killing and maiming noncombatants instead of the troops they seek to target.
Changing tactics on the part of the Taliban and other groups helped fuel the increase in civilian casualties, the report said. For example, the number of suicide bombings leveled off last year, but the number of civilian deaths caused by them jumped 80% because the attacks tended to be larger and more complex, deliberately calculated to kill as many people as possible.
Another driving force behind the increasing death toll was a campaign of assassinations by the Taliban and other groups, which seek to intimidate local officials, community leaders and tribal elders who are seen as cooperating with the government. Nearly 500 such killings were documented in 2011.
The U.S.-led coalition was blamed for about 14% of the civilian deaths, a year-on-year decline of 4%, the report said. But noncombatant deaths blamed on aerial bombardment increased in 2011, even though fewer such strikes occurred. The U.N. mission called on NATO’s International Security Assistance Force to review its procedures for calling in airstrikes.
The NATO force has made battlefield changes in recent years meant to reduce the risks of civilians getting caught up in combat between Western troops and the Taliban, but field commanders sometimes complain that their hands are tied by the restrictions.
The war’s geography also changed, the report suggests. The rate of deaths and injuries increased in the country’s east and southeast -- areas close to Pakistan’s tribal areas -- and in the traditionally more peaceful north, where the insurgents have been working to establish a foothold.
Perhaps most worryingly for the NATO force and the Afghan government, the report painted a picture of ordinary lives increasingly shadowed by conflict at a time when the Afghan police and army are taking more responsibility for protecting the population.
“As 2011 unfolded, ordinary Afghan people experienced growing intrusion into, and disruption of, their day-to-day lives by the armed conflict,” the report said.
The fighting also yielded a 45% spike in the numbers of people driven from their homes, according to the U.N. figures.
-- Laura King
Photo: Afghan police inspect the scene of a bomb blast in Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, in January. The attack killed three civilians. Credit: Sher Khan / EPA