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Afghan civilian death toll undermines U.S. support

Afghan civilian deaths rise 39 percent. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pledges to do more to solve problem.

By Anand GopalCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 18, 2008

BLAMES U.S.: Afghan woman shows photos of family members she says were killed in Aug. 22 air raid in Herat Province.

Fraidoon Pooyaa/AP

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Kabul, Afghanistan

In a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Wednesday, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pledged to do more to prevent civilian deaths from military operations. Mr. Gates's vow comes on the heels of a new UN report saying that the number of civilian casualties jumped by 39 percent in 2008, fueling controversy about the West's role in the country.

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"While no military has ever done more to prevent civilian casualties, it is also clear that we have to work even harder," Gates told reporters.

Nearly 1,500 civilians have been killed by either the Taliban or NATO and US forces so far this year, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Tuesday. More than half of those deaths are attributed to the Taliban. And US Air Force data suggests that its bombing accuracy is actually improving.

But the UN findings come at a time of rising public criticism after a series of US and NATO aerial bombing raids killed large numbers of Afghan civilians. "Civilian casualties is becoming the main issue in the relationship between the West and Afghanistan," says Nasrullah Stanikzai, lecturer at the Faculty of Law at Kabul University. If the trend of high levels of casualties continues, he says, it could drive a permanent wedge between Afghans and the US.

Combatants killed at least 330 civilians in August alone, UN Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville said. "That's the highest number of civilian deaths to occur in a single month since the end of major hostilities and the ousting of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001."

While the Taliban is responsible for more civilian deaths (55 percent of the total) than NATO, according to the UN, the actions of international forces and allies have sparked the most intense criticism from Afghans. The number of civilians killed by pro-government forces jumped by 21 percent this year, and air strikes were responsible for two-thirds of these, the UN reported. Last month up to 96 civilians were killed in the western province of Herat, sparking protests around the country. Earlier in the summer, American ordnance hit a wedding party in eastern Afghanistan, killing 47 civilians. In both cases US officials denied that such a large number of civilians were killed.

These two high-profile attacks are bringing anti-American sentiment to an all-time high, says Professor Stanikzai. "Afghans by and large still support the troops, but after these recent incidents more people are starting to change their minds."

While there has been no recent poll, a November 2007 study by Environics found that 52 percent of Afghans want the troops out within the next three to five years, and only 40 percent say that the West and the Afghan government will win the war. The approval rating of the US role in Afghanistan dipped from 68 percent in 2005 to 42 percent in 2007, according to data collected by Charney Research.

Barnett Rubin, a senior fellow at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, says that "Afghans are losing hope that the US or any other part of the international community has either the intention or capacity to rescue them" from their difficult situation.