The number of Afghan civilians, including children, killed in violence rose by nearly 17 percent in the first half of this year compared with the same period in 2013, as the country’s war continues to creep closer to homes and populated areas, the United Nations said Wednesday.
The worrying trend comes as the Taliban and other anti-government insurgents grow bolder with their attacks on Afghan security forces in the fight for control of key routes and other territory ahead of the withdrawal date for U.S. and allied combat troops at the end of 2014.
In one such attack early Wednesday against the governor's compound in the southern city of Kandahar, six people, including two police officers, were killed when 11 insurgents wearing bomb vests tried to take over the small complex. The attack began when one insurgent blew up the car he was inside, in an attempt to breach the compound's gates, killing four civilian bystanders. Police and security forces killed all 11 attackers, said Dawa Khan Minapal, a spokesman for the governor.
Afghan civilians have often been caught up in the violence plaguing their country, but the 85-page biannual U.N. report said that so far this year clashes, rockets and mortar strikes killed more civilians than roadside bombs and suicide attacks, a change from the past when most civilian casualties were blamed on roadside bombs.
"The fight is increasingly taking place in communities, in public places, near playgrounds, and near the homes of ordinary Afghans, with death and injury particularly to women and children in a continued disturbing upward spiral," Georgette Gagnon, the U.N. mission's human rights unit director, said in a news release.
The report said the shift was directly related to the closure and transfer to Afghan security forces of at least 86 bases belonging to the U.S.-led coalition as well as an increase in assaults against a growing number of Afghan checkpoints and patrols near markets and public roads.
The findings were especially troubling because they threaten to undermine confidence in Afghan soldiers and police who are struggling to show they can protect the people as most foreign forces are slated to leave by the end of the year.
President Barack Obama has said he wants to leave nearly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan to help train Afghan security forces and to stage counterterrorism operations. But outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement that would allow the Americans to stay, saying he was leaving the decision to his successor.
In all, 1,564 civilians were killed from January through June, compared with 1,342 in the first six months of 2013, the U.N. said. That included a 21 percent jump in the death toll for children, with 295 killed so far this year, compared with 243 in the same period last year.
Tensions surrounding the April 5 election and the June 14 runoff vote to replace Karzai — the only leader the country has known since the U.S. invasion that ousted the Taliban in 2001 — also took a toll on civilians, with 173 deaths from attacks on electoral officials in convoys or polling centers or on candidates and their supporters.
There are new fears that violence could erupt in the aftermath of the disputed second-round election, in which Ashraf Ghani has been declared the winner over early front-runner Abdullah Abdullah. Widespread voting irregularities have been reported, and Abdullah has rejected the preliminary results and called for U.N. intervention.
Both candidates, however, have promised to sign the security pact with the U.S.
The U.N. also said the Taliban and other insurgents continued to be the main cause of civilian casualties, noting that the number of civilians killed by the insurgents doubled to 1,208 in the first half of this year, compared with 599 in the same period of 2009, when the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan first began keeping track of civilian casualties.
Insurgents were responsible for 74 percent of the casualties, pro-government forces were responsible for 9 percent, government forces 8 percent and foreign troops just 1 percent, the U.N. said. The rest could not be attributed to any group.
The report called on the Afghan government to try to mitigate the number of civilians killed and wounded by revising and strengthening tactical directives and rules of engagement and ensuring proper training on protection measures and accountability.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press