The U.N. said Tuesday that 1,445 Afghan civilians have died so far this year in attacks by insurgents, the U.S. and NATO — a 40 percent increase over 2007.
Exactly 800 of the deaths— or 55 percent — were caused by Taliban and other insurgents, the U.N. said. U.S., NATO and Afghan troops killed 577 civilians, or 40 percent, including 395 deaths caused by air strikes. The rest died in crossfire or by old mine explosions.
The death toll through the end of August represents a 40 percent jump from the 1,040 Afghan civilians killed during the same eight-month period in 2007.
President Hamid Karzai has long complained that civilian deaths caused by U.S. or NATO military action undermine his government and the international mission.
But the issue was propelled to the forefront of U.S.-Afghan relations last month when an Afghan commission found that an Aug. 22 U.S.-led operation killed 90 civilians, including 60 children, a finding backed by a preliminary U.N. report.
A U.S. military review found that up to 35 Taliban fighters and seven civilians died in the raid. But after video images surfaced showing dead children and dozens of bodies, the U.S. said it would send a one-star general from the United States to investigate.
Karzai's spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, told The Associated Press on Sunday that the mission didn't kill "a single Taliban," and that it had strained U.S.-Afghan relations. Hamidzada said the U.S. acted on false information provided by a rival tribe.
Meanwhile, Gen. David McKiernan, the senior U.S. general in Afghanistan, said Tuesday that he is fighting the war with too few ground troops, a shortage that compels him to use more air power, at the cost of higher civilian casualties.
Question of accountability
The U.N. on Tuesday said 330 civilians died in August alone, including 92 killed in the raid on the village of Azizabad.
"This is 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," U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said in a statement.
Pillay called for greater transparency in holding U.S. and NATO forces involved in civilian casualties accountable.
The U.N. did not say how its human rights monitors collected their death tolls or who they relied on for information. The U.N. count included 92 civilians the U.N. said were killed in Azizabad, though the U.S. is still investigating that incident.
A record number of U.S. and NATO troops now operate in Afghanistan — meaning more troops to carry out more missions — and the use of airstrikes has spiked this year. There are more than 65,000 international troops in Afghanistan, including some 33,000 U.S. forces.
Still, increasingly violent insurgent fighters were responsible for the majority of civilian deaths. Many of the average Afghans killed were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, when insurgent suicide bombers detonated their explosives or when roadside bombs went off.
The U.N. also said militants are increasingly targeting Afghans the insurgents suspect of working with the Afghan government or international militaries.
"There is substantial evidence indicating that the Taliban are carrying out a systematic campaign of intimidation and violence aimed at Afghan civilians they believe to be supportive of the government, the international community, and military forces," Pillay said.
Climbing death toll
After the bombing in Azizabad, the Afghan government announced that it would review its "status of force" agreement with the U.S. and NATO and review whether to demand an end to airstrikes and operations in Afghan villages.
The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, said Tuesday that militants have killed 720 police in the last six months. In 2007, militants killed about 925 police — meaning the pace of attacks this year has increased.
Afghanistan's 80,000 police have less training and less firepower than the Afghan army, making them an attractive target for militants. The police also travel in small groups through some of Afghanistan's most dangerous territory.
In all, more than 4,200 people — mostly militants — have died in insurgency related violence this year, according to an Associated Press tally of figures from Afghan and Western officials.