War takes grim toll on Afghan civilians, but military caused deaths declining

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The insurgent war has taken a devastating toll on Afghan civilians this year, but the proportion of deaths caused by the international military coalition declined, latest United Nations figures show.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The insurgent war has taken a devastating toll on Afghan civilians this year, but the proportion of deaths caused by the international military coalition declined, latest United Nations figures show.

The numbers suggest efforts by coalition forces to minimize non-combatant casualties — a key Taliban propaganda tool — are paying off.

In the first 10 months of this year, a total of 2,038 Afghan civilians died in the ongoing conflict – almost 11 per cent more than in the same period last year, according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

About four times as many civilians were killed this year than coalition troops. Twenty-eight Canadian soldiers died in 2009.

It was not immediately clear if Canadian forces were responsible for any of the deaths.

“The impact the conflict is having on the Afghan people is increasing year by year,” Aleem Siddique, chief UN spokesman in the war-wracked country, said in an interview from Kabul on Tuesday.

“The numbers speak to the difficult security situation and the increase in violence.”

What the grim figures do indicate is that the proportion of civilians killed by insurgent action has risen to about 70 per cent from 55 per cent last year.

At the same time, the proportion of deaths at the hands of the international coalition has fallen by almost half — to about 20 per cent from 40 per cent.

Siddique said concerted efforts by the military forces to avoid “collateral damage” appear to be having an impact.

Earlier this year, he noted, the International Security Assistance Force issued a directive to coalition members to do everything possible to minimize civilian casualties.

U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who heads the military effort in the country, similarly ordered troops to avoid killing bystanders as a cornerstone of his counter-insurgency efforts.

“Any civilian casualties makes the job here in Afghanistan harder,” Siddique said.

Overall, Taliban insurgents and other anti-government elements were blamed for more than 1,400 civilian deaths in the first 10 months of the year.

Another 468 were the result of international military efforts to contain the insurgency.

The UN did not break down the figures by province.

In most cases where civilians died at the hands of NATO forces, air strikes were to blame, including incidents that garnered global news coverage and infuriated Afghans.

Germany, for example, promised earlier this month it would compensate victims of a German-ordered U.S. bombardment that killed dozens of civilians in Kunduz province in September, an incident that angered President Hamid Karzai.

The president has also ordered an investigation into reports that U.S. special forces killed 10 civilians, including eight school children, on Saturday in Kunar province.

Earlier this month, NATO forces killed six civilians, including a woman, in the eastern province of Laghman.

Siddique said the declining proportion of casualties caused by military operations is likely due to the coalition’s decreased reliance on air strikes in recent months.

Still, if trends continue, this year will end with a record number of civilians killed in the eight-year conflict, following a 40 per cent jump last year over 2007.

In 2008, suicide and IED attacks accounted for one-third of civilian casualties — more than any other tactic used by the parties to the conflict, the UN said.

Last week, a suicide attacker killed eight civilians in a relatively safe part of Kandahar city, although the intended target remains unclear.

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