Civilian deaths in the Afghanistan conflict surged 24 percent in the first half of 2009, according to a new report from the United Nations. Anger over the misuse of force has become a top issue among Afghans, prompting leaders on both sides recently to issue directives to their fighters to minimize civilian casualties.
The UN report is a bad news, good news document for the US and its Afghan allies. The 21-page report (PDF), issued July 31, found that insurgents killed almost twice as many civilians in the first six months of the year as the coalition did (595 deaths against 309). The UN said it was a "significant shift" from the first half of 2007, when insurgent groups killed 298 civilians and US and allied forces killed 265. In the first half of 2008 the split was 495 to 276.
Nevertheless, the absolute number of civilians killed by both sides continued to rise.
The new commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, issued a tactical directive earlier this month to curb the use of air strikes to "very limited" scenarios. And a new Taliban "code of conduct" manual purportedly from Mullah Omar tells insurgents to take "the utmost effort" to avoid civilian casualties.
It remains to be seen whether General McChrystal can bring down civilian casualties in the context of a US troop surge and intensification of the conflict. Some analysts say it's an issue of much greater importance to the coalition than to the Taliban.
"From the point of view of the coalition, which is supporting an incumbent government, there is nothing to be gained from civilian casualties because they can only alienate support for the government," says William Maley, an Afghanistan expert at the Australian National University. "Whereas from the Taliban's point of view, civilian casualties serve a very effective purpose: It's a way of symbolizing the incapacity of the state to protect people,"
Nearly 50 percent increase since '07
The total numbers of civilians killed by all sides has been rising rapidly as the war has intensified. The UN counted 1,013 civilian deaths in the first six months of 2009, 818 from the same period in 2008, and 684 in 2007. For some deaths, the UN was unable to determine which side was responsible.
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.
"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.