The number of Afghan civilians killed or injured in the war soared 31 percent in the first six months of the year, with Taliban bombings and assassinations largely responsible for the sharp rise, the United Nations reported Tuesday.
Hidden bombs and suicide attacks are killing and maiming so many Afghans that Amnesty International urged the Afghan government to seek prosecution of Taliban leaders for war crimes. Women and children are increasingly bearing the brunt of the conflict — even as NATO restrains the use of force on the battlefield.
The U.N. report found the number of deaths and injuries caused by NATO and Afghan government forces dropped by 30 percent compared with the first six months of last year, largely a result of curbs on the use of air power and heavy weapons.
But the overall sharp rise in deaths and injuries indicate the war is growing ever more violent, undermining the coalition's aim of improving security for ordinary Afghans in the face of a virulent Taliban insurgency.
Violence has paralyzed life in much of the country, especially the south, where many people are afraid to work with the Afghan government, run a business or travel. The last two months have seen record death tolls for U.S. and NATO forces on the battlefield.
"The human cost of this conflict is unfortunately rising," said Staffan De Mistura, the top U.N. envoy in Afghanistan. "We are very concerned about the future because the human cost is being paid too heavily by civilians. This report is a wake-up call."
According to the U.N. report, at least 1,271 Afghans were killed and 1,997 were injured — mostly from bombings — in the first six months of the year. The U.N. said the figures represented a 31 percent increase in civilian deaths and injuries over the same period last year.
The U.N. said the Taliban and their allies were responsible for 76 percent of all civilian deaths and injuries. The report attributed the rise to greater Taliban use of larger and more sophisticated hidden bombs throughout the country and a 95 percent increase in targeted assassinations.
An updated Taliban code of conduct distributed to insurgents in southern Afghanistan this month urged their fighters to avoid killing civilians, suggesting the militant leadership is also sensitive to a possible public backlash among their support base.
However, the Taliban consider anyone who works for or shows support for the Afghan government and its international partners to be traitors and legitimate targets for death. Roadside bombs intended for NATO convoys often strike civilian vehicles instead. Suicide attacks in outdoor markets and other public places routinely end up killing or maiming civilians.
Two suicide bombers Tuesday attacked a building rented by a private security company in the Afghan capital, killing two company drivers. Four other civilians were killed by Taliban bombs Tuesday — one in Ghazni and the other in Kandahar — according to police.
The U.N. attributed the 30 percent drop in civilian casualties caused by NATO or Afghan government forces to a sharp decline in deaths and injuries from airstrikes. Last year former top commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal limited the use of airstrikes and heavy weapons to quell a rising tide of anger among Afghans over civilian deaths at the hands of international forces.
McChrystal's successor, Gen. David Petraeus, has maintained those curbs, telling his troops this month that "every Afghan death diminishes our cause." Nevertheless, airstrikes accounted for 69 of the 223 civilian deaths attributed to NATO or government forces, the report said.
"The devastating human impact of these events underscores that nine years into the conflict, measures to protect Afghan civilians effectively and to minimize the effect of the conflict on basic human rights are more urgent than ever before," said Georgette Gagnon, director of human rights for the U.N. mission here.
Violence is taking an increasing toll on Afghan women and children, according to the U.N. Insurgent roadside bombs alone killed at least 74 children in the first half of the year — a 155 percent increase in bombing-related deaths among children compared to the same period last year, the U.N. said.
Deaths among women as a result of insurgent attacks rose 6 percent during the reporting period, the U.N. said. U.N. officials attributed the increase in large part to Taliban bombings in open-air markets where women gather with their children to shop.
"Afghan children and women are increasingly bearing the brunt of this conflict," di Mistura said. "They are being killed and injured in their homes and communities in greater numbers than ever before."
In response to the U.N. report, Amnesty International said the Taliban and other insurgents should be prosecuted for war crimes. It urged the Afghan government to ask the International Criminal Court to open investigations of insurgent leaders.
"The Taliban and other insurgents are becoming far bolder in their systematic killing of civilians. Targeting of civilians is a war crime, plain and simple" said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's director for Asia. "The Afghan people are crying out for justice, and have a right to accountability and compensation."
Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the U.N. report shows that "the Taliban are resorting to desperate measures," including assassinations of teachers, doctors, civil servants and tribal elders.
"Targeting civilians violates the laws of war," she said.
Taliban tactics could also complicate efforts by President Hamid Karzai to begin negotiations with the insurgents on a political settlement to end the nearly 9-year war. U.S. and NATO officials have said the increasingly unpopular war can be resolved only through a political solution.
"One day, when unavoidably there will be a discussion about the future of the country, will you want to come to that table with thousands of Afghans, civilians, killed along the road?" di Mistura asked.
He said that if the Taliban want to play a role in a future Afghanistan, "they cannot do so over the bodies of so many civilians."