Fewer Afghan Civilians Killed in Airstrikes Last Year: UN

The number of Afghan civilians killed in airstrikes fell by nearly a half last year, the United Nations said, a day after President Hamid Karzai barred local forces from calling in air support in a bid to stem casualties.

In its annual survey, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said at least 2,754 civilians were killed amid clashes between Afghan and U.S.-led troops and the Taliban in 2012, a 12 percent drop compared with a year earlier and the first fall in six years. The number who died in aerial bombing by international forces dropped 42 percent to 126, it said.

The lower numbers were due to fewer battles between the warring parties, steps taken to reduce casualties, a smaller number of air operations and a decline in suicide attacks by what the mission referred to as “anti-government forces.”

Still, “the human cost of the conflict remains unacceptable,” UN Special Representative for Afghanistan Jan Kubis, said in an e-mailed statement today. “Steep increases in the deliberate targeting of civilians perceived to be supporting the government demonstrates another grave violation of international humanitarian law.”

The mission attributed 81 percent of civilian casualties last year to Taliban attacks. Eight percent were caused by Afghan and U.S.-led forces fighting the 11-year-old Taliban insurgency. Responsibility for the remaining 11 percent could not be fixed. The number of women and girls killed or injured increased 20 percent from 2011, the report said.

Forces Vulnerable

Karzai yesterday issued a formal decree ordering his defense and interior ministries, and the country’s intelligence agency, to avoid requesting the support of North Atlantic Treaty Organization aircraft while conducting operations in residential areas nationwide.

The order came after reports that 10 Afghan civilians, including women and children, were killed by an airstrike in eastern Kunar province, bordering Pakistan. The bombardment took place at the request of Afghan forces who believed the buildings hit to be a Taliban hideout.

While Karzai’s decree may help reduce civilian casualties, it may hinder Afghan security forces bidding to prevent Taliban guerrillas from taking control territory as the U.S. is set to withdraw 34,000 troops within 12 months, cutting its military presence in the country by half.

“Afghan forces cannot operate without any air support,” General Abdul Hadi Khalid, a former deputy interior minister and retired Afghan army general, said in a phone interview. “The Taliban could recapture districts.”

Coalition Pledge

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, pledged to work with the Afghan government to implement Karzai’s restrictions.

“We will provide continuous support in line with the intent of President Karzai,” said German General Gunter Katz in a press conference yesterday. ISAF will discuss the “details in a few days” with Afghan officials, he said.

Improvised explosive devices planted by insurgents were “the greatest threat to civilians in 2012,” causing 2,531 casualties with 868 deaths and 1,663 injuries in 782 separate incidents nationwide, the report said.

The U.S. and its allies plan to fully hand over security to Afghanistan’s army and police by the end of 2014. The former commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Afghanistan, Marine General John Allen, said Feb. 10 that Afghan soldiers are almost completely leading operations.

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