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In Afghanistan, Taliban kills more civilians than US

According to a new UN report, the number of civilians killed by both sides in the conflict has risen nearly 50 percent since 2007.

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The UN report notes that the US military and its partners began late last year to make changes in the way it uses air power to reduce civilian casualties, with mixed success.

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"Notwithstanding efforts by international military forces to implement policies and procedures to minimize the impact of their operations on civilians, airstrikes remain responsible for the largest percentage of civilian deaths attributed to [progovernment forces]," the report reads.

One of the problems facing international forces, says Dr. Maley, is that airstrikes – 200 civilians were killed by coalition airstrikes in the first half of the year – have a much greater risk of causing mass casualties than the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that are the Taliban's weapon of choice.

But the Taliban's tactics are also putting more civilians in harm's way. Since 2008, the UN data shows that the Taliban have shifted towards the use of IEDs and away from the frontal attacks on security forces they favored early in the conflict. The indiscriminate nature of IEDs make civilian casualties inevitable, but in some cases civilians appear to be specific targets. For instance, 16 IEDs have been planted in girls' schools.

While Maley points out that the insurgents need to sow fear with such attacks to shake Afghan confidence in the government, new Taliban guidelines at least make a show of concern for the population.

Key: How Taliban approach Aug. 20 election

A Taliban spokesman told the Associated Press that 20,000 copies of the 60-page booklet were being circulated, which urge their fighters to avoid civilian casualties.

"The Taliban are worried that a lot of groups call themselves Taliban, especially a number of criminal groups that go on the main road and kidnap people to extract money," says Haroun Mir, an Afghan analyst based in Kabul. "So Mullah Omar is launching a campaign so the Taliban don't alienate the local population."

Whether civilian killings surge further in the coming weeks may depend on how the Taliban approach the upcoming Aug. 20 national elections. Taliban spokesmen have recently vowed to disrupt the vote. But they generally stood down during the last election in 2004, as well as during voter registration efforts earlier this year.

Some analysts suggest that the Taliban might gain more by allowing the election to go forward, banking on popular disillusionment if President Hamid Karzai wins reelection. In recent days, however, the election appears to have tightened, perhaps raising the chances of Taliban resistance.

"This time I think we are much more likely to witness attempts to disrupt the election because in a sense it's a very important moment – if the election goes off successfully... that will be politically damaging for the Taliban," says Maley.

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