KABUL — The Afghan government’s share of blame for civilian casualties rose drastically last year, largely reflecting an intensification in the ground conflict between insurgents and Afghan troops, according to a report from the United Nations released Saturday.
The report highlighted how significantly the nature of the conflict has changed, as American and NATO forces handed over most of the responsibility for security to the Afghans last year.
Despite high-profile complaints by President Hamid Karzai, the UN’s 2013 Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict said that only 3 percent of civilian casualties were caused by international forces last year.
At the same time, a decline in civilian deaths seen in 2012 was reversed, with 2,959 killed in 2013 — nearly the same as the civilian toll in the war’s worst year, 2011, the United Nations said. Overall, civilian casualties, totaling 8,615, were up by 14 percent in 2013 over 2012.
While the Taliban insurgents and their allies continued to cause by far the most civilian casualties — three-fourths of the total in 2013 — the report expressed concern about the rapid rise in the number of civilians killed in ground fighting between government and insurgent forces, as well as the increase in deaths attributed to government forces.
Civilian casualties caused by progovernment forces increased 59 percent last year, while those arising from ground engagements rose 128 percent, the report said.
While quick to criticize the Americans for episodes that killed civilians, Karzai has been far less outspoken on such actions by the insurgents and even by his own government’s forces, said Hadi Marifat, a Kabul spokesman for the Center for Civilians in Conflict, an advocacy group.
“He has been selectively highlighting cases of civilian casualties for political lobbies externally but quite reluctant to criticize the casualties caused by the Taliban, and that is a concern for all of us; there is a need to depoliticize this issue,” Marifat said.
Adela Raz, a spokeswoman for Karzai, said his office had condemned deadly attacks carried out by insurgents as well as international forces. She said Karzai “has always said that civilian casualties should not only be decreased but completely ended.” She added, “The president’s position in this regard has always been clear.”
The International Security Assistance Force, as the American-led coalition is called, issued a statement praising the UN report, but adding that its “training mission includes instilling a culture of civilian casualty reduction within Afghan security ministries.”
The international coalition said 7,500 Afghan security personnel had been trained since 2012 in detecting and counteracting improvised explosive devices, which, as in previous years, remain the single largest killer of civilians, according to the United Nations.
Last year, the second-biggest killer of civilians became ground engagements — the year before, that dubious distinction went to suicide attacks — another indicator that government forces and insurgents were fighting many more ground battles than they had in the past, with civilians often caught between them.
“Afghan security forces’ lead responsibility for security brings with it increased responsibility for civilian protection,” Jan Kubis, the top UN official in Afghanistan, said in a statement about the report. “It is critically important for Afghan forces to take all possible measures to protect civilians from the harms of conflict.”
At a news conference, Kubis directed his harshest criticism at the Taliban insurgents, who he said were not only responsible for killing the most civilians but also were the only party to the conflict that deliberately set out to harm civilians.
‘It is critically important for Afghan forces . . . to protect civilians from the harms of conflict.’Jan Kubis, top UN official in Afghanistan
“I would like to stress the overwhelming majority is because of the activities and acts of the antigovernment elements, and these are the only elements that are targeting civilians, directly targeting civilians,” he said. “This is a major difference between them and those that are unfortunately killed in action, for example, of progovernment forces against antigovernment elements.”
The Taliban have justified attacks on places such as restaurants and mosques by saying the presence of progovernment figures there justified the killing of civilians.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, complained in a statement e-mailed to journalists that the United Nations had not given the insurgents an advance copy of the report but asserted that such reports in the past had been “prepared by the US Embassy in Kabul but released under the name of the United Nations.”
“While we reject this one-sided UNAMA report, our mujahedin have been seriously ordered by his excellency the emir of the faithful that they are required to avoid civilian casualties,” Mujahid said, using the acronym for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and referring to the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar by an honorific title.
The UN report documented numerous instances, however, in which the insurgents deliberately hit civilian targets. It said the Taliban publicly claimed responsibility for 153 attacks that caused civilian casualties last year, three times the number of such claims in 2012. Those 2013 attacks killed 302 civilians.
In addition, the insurgents continued a trend to increased numbers of attacks on what the United Nations considered civilians and other noncombatants, including elders, election workers, and mullahs.