Taliban insurgents have intensified their attacks on Afghan civilians with IEDs, suicide bombers and assassinations and executions, according to a new United Nations report
. The killings helped make 2009 the deadliest year for civilians since the U.S. intervention in 2001.
Afghan civilian deaths caused by American and allied forces actually declined. Yet, the perception among most Afghans is that the United States is responsible when Afghans are killed.
"We have a long way to go in the public perception,'' a senior U.S. officer told me by phone from Kabul Thursday.
Typical of the Taliban's tactics was the attack Thursday by a suicide bomber who walked into a crowded market in the town of Dihrawud in central Afghanistan. Sixteen civilians, including three children, were killed along with a police officer, and at least 13 others were wounded, when he detonated his bomb, Afghan police said.
During 2009, such attacks by the Taliban killed at least 1,630 Afghan civilians, a 41 percent increase from 2008, the United Nations mission in Afghanistan said this week in its latest semiannual report on civilian casualties.
Civilian casualties caused by U.S. and allied forces and Afghan troops were down 28 percent from 2008, the UN said. It credited the reduction to efforts by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan, to severely restrict the circumstances in which aircraft
or ground troops can open fire when civilians might be put at risk. McChrystal ordered the new restrictions in a tactical directive
he issued last July, shortly after taking command.
Nevertheless, U.S. air strikes and ground assaults are usually blamed for most Afghan civilian deaths. In the eastern Afghanistan city of Jalalabad, riots broke out two weeks ago after reports circulated
that 10 civilians, including eight children, were killed in a raid by U.S. forces. Despite a joint investigation, NATO and Afghan officials disagreed about whether the dead were innocent children or Taliban insurgents. Afghan President Hamid Karzai sharply accused U.S. and NATO forces of causing the deaths and vowed to take the matter to an international forum.
And in Kabul last week, thousands marched and shouted "Death to America''
to protest what they said was the killing of children by U.S. forces. In the incident in question, NATO troops and crowds of Afghans had gathered at a U.S.-funded road construction site when a bomb was detonated, killing four children and wounding several western soldiers. The Taliban issued a statement suggesting the attack was the work of foreign troops.
But the UN said its investigations of such incidents documented insurgent responsibility. "Suicide and IED attacks caused more civilian casualties than another other tactic,'' the UN reported, adding that often such attacks are aimed at foreign troops but are carried out where Afghan civilians congregate.
In other instances, the UN reported, civilians "are deliberately targeted with assassinations, abductions and executions if they are perceived to be supportive of, or associated with, the government or the international community. A broad range of civilians, including community elders, former military personnel, doctors, teachers and construction workers have been targeted.''
It may seem counterproductive for the Taliban to deliberately kill civilians, as their strategic goal is to win the support of the population against the government in Kabul and its foreign backers. But counterinsurgency experts say intimidation tactics are extremely effective -- at least for a while.
In eastern Afghanistan last fall, an Afghan doctor told me that most medical professionals in Khost Province no longer cooperated with American doctors at a U.S. military base there because it was unsafe to travel to the base on roads where the Taliban plant IEDs. In that case, the Taliban successfully blocked what had been a productive collaboration between Afghan and U.S. medical teams.
When an explosion does cause civilian casualties, the Taliban claim it was the Americans who planted the IEDs, and "many people believe them,'' said the Afghan doctor, who asked that I not use his name.
Eventually, however, such tactics can backfire. That was the case in Iraq's Anbar Province, where local clan chieftains became fed up with al-Qaeda atrocities and in late 2006 began forming their own anti-al-Qaeda militias
that eventually worked closely with U.S. soldiers and Marines. After a year, the insurgents had been pretty much chased out.
The decline in Afghan civilian casualties caused by U.S. and allied forces in 2009 came even as the war intensified and broadened with the arrival of 17,000 troop reinforcements authorized in February by President Obama. U.S. and allied warplanes flew 1,462 close air support missions in 2009, a 25 percent increase over 2008. Yet the number of munitions used, including bombs and rockets, actually declined from 5,051 in 2008 to 4,181 in 2009.
But that's a tough story to tell in Afghanistan, U.S. officials say. Spokesmen for the International Security Assistance Force, the U.S. and allied coalition command, say they have no plans to publicize the UN report.
"Statistical kinds of things don't play that well here,'' U.S. Army Col. Wayne Shanks, chief ISAF spokesman, said Thursday.
As a result, he said, "When the Taliban blow up a bunch of people, you don't see a lot of protest. But when we screw up and accidentally kill somebody, you get riots in the streets.''
Rather than publish statistics, he said, ISAF is working harder to push civilian casualties down to zero. Recently, for example, a drone spy plane picked up nighttime images of people handling heavy objects on the side of a road. Air analysts thought they'd spotted insurgents planting IEDs. But the command diverted a nearby ground patrol to have a look. They found teenagers collecting piles of firewood.
"We're working at this through our actions rather than through statistics,'' said Shanks, insisting that "deeds are always going to be much stronger than words will ever be.''