By Emma Graham-Harrison
KABUL (Reuters) – More than 2,400 civilians died in Afghanistan in 2009, the deadliest year for non-combatants since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban, but killings by foreign and government troops fell, the United Nations said on Wednesday.
Civilian casualties, one of the most emotive issues of the eight year conflict, rose 14 percent overall, the Human Rights division of the U.N.’s Afghan mission said in a statement.
The report said two thirds of civilian deaths were caused by insurgents, while just a quarter were caused by government or foreign troops. The rest, not quite 8 percent, could not be attributed to either side.
Western efforts to cut the human cost of their presence in Afghanistan appeared to have had some success, with casualties falling a quarter from 2008, but nearly 600 people were still killed by foreign and government forces.
Reducing the number of civilian deaths caused by his troops has been a central focus of General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of NATO and U.S. forces, who took over in the middle of 2009 promising a new strategy to protect Afghans.
McChrystal imposed new restrictions on the use of force, particularly air strikes, in areas where civilians might be hurt, arguing that civilian deaths aid the cause of the insurgents by angering the population.
The majority of those killed by Western forces, around 60 percent, died in air strikes, the U.N. report said. It also condemned the placement of military bases near areas where many civilians live, and violent “search and seizure” raids by pro-government and foreign troops.
“These often involved excessive use of force, destruction of property and cultural insensitivity, particularly toward women,” Norah Niland, the chief human rights officer at the United Nations in Kabul, said in a statement.
The number of people killed by armed insurgent groups rose dramatically, over 40 percent, with victims dying in suicide attacks, roadside bombings and firefights, but also executions for those seen as government supporters and informers.
“Civilians are also being deliberately assassinated, abducted and executed if they are perceived as being associated with the Government or the international community,” Niland said.
She also called on militants to follow the Taliban “code of conduct” which calls for protection of civilians.
Last year was also by far the deadliest year of the war for foreign troops, particularly the United States and Britain, who lost more than twice as many soldiers as in any previous year.
The report also said unrest and violence were spreading to previously stable areas, such as the northeast, although nearly half of all deaths were still in the volatile southern part of Afghanistan.
The report highlighted the increased insecurity that Afghans face in their daily lives, said a group of Afghan activists and development workers fighting to reduce innocent deaths.
“Despite promises in 2009, security is getting worse by the day. Politicians and commanders have made many promises about protecting the population, but so far we have not seen the results,” said Mudassir Rasuli, spokesman for the group Afghan NGOs against civilian casualties.