By Hashmat Baktash and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times
BAGHDAD — Accelerating a grim trend in the evolving war in Afghanistan, civilian casualties rose sharply in in the first half of this year due to heavier ground combat between government forces and insurgents in populated areas, the United Nations reported Tuesday.
Through the end of June, the U.N. mission in Afghanistan documented 1,564 civilian deaths and 3,289 injured. The total represented a 24 percent increase over the same period last year and was particularly devastating for children, whose casualties as a result of ground operations more than doubled.
The statistics were a reminder that the hostilities are far from over even as U.S.-led international forces prepare to depart the country by the end of the year. Afghanistan also is mired in a tense standoff over a disputed presidential election that threatens to unleash violence between rival political camps and ethnic groups.
“In 2014 we found that the fight is increasingly taking place in communities, in public places near playgrounds and near the homes of ordinary Afghans,” Georgette Gagnon, the U.N. human rights director in Kabul, said in releasing the twice-annual report. “More efforts are needed to protect civilians from the conflict and to ensure accountability for those who are deliberately and indiscriminately killing them.”
It was the first time since the U.N. began closely tracking civilian casualties in 2009 that ground combat was the No. 1 killer, resulting in a greater number of casualties from mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. As in the past, the lion’s share of the casualties — 74 percent — was attributed to anti-government forces.
As the U.S.-led military coalition has closed scores of bases or handed them over to Afghan forces, the dynamics of the conflict have changed, with the Afghan soldiers and police often unable to keep Taliban and allied insurgents from moving into territory vacated by the foreign forces, the report found. In the second half of 2013, the coalition closed or transferred at least 86 bases, which had a direct impact on civilian safety, with fighting in populated areas increasing when Afghan forces tried to protect territory seized by insurgents, the U.N. said.
“In some areas the perceived lack of control by Afghan security forces appeared to encourage anti-government elements to bring together larger attack groups which resulted in higher civilian casualties,” the report said.
In the past, most civilians have been killed or injured in bomb attacks, which so far this year were responsible for the second-most casualties — although those, too, were higher than in the same period last year. Improvised explosive devices killed 463 civilians and injured 1,000, a 7 percent jump from last year and the most since 2009.
The U.N. also found a worrying rise in deaths and injuries from pressure-plate bombs, a low-tech device designed to detonate when a vehicle drives over it, reversing a decline seen last year. The devices accounted for one in five casualties from bomb attacks, according to the report.
The U.S. Army via Flickr.com