United Nations: In deadliest year for Afghan civilians, Taliban did most damage

By Keith B. Richburg and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 14, 2010

KABUL -- Last year was the deadliest for Afghan civilians since the U.S.-led war began here in 2001, according to a report by the United Nations released Wednesday. But in a shift from 2008, when the United States and its allies were deemed responsible for nearly half of all civilian deaths, the survey blamed the Taliban for the vast majority of the killings last year.

The survey, by the U.N. human rights office in Afghanistan, said the new U.S. commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, had largely succeeded in his goal of reducing civilian deaths by sharply restricting the use of airstrikes.

But at the same time, the report said, the Taliban has stepped up efforts at intimidation through mass-casualty suicide attacks, the use of more powerful roadside bombs and executions of suspected informants.

The report said that 2,412 Afghan civilians were killed in 2009, a 14 percent increase from 2008, and that the Taliban was responsible for two-thirds of those deaths. U.S.-led coalition forces, the report said, were responsible for a quarter of the deaths, with responsibility for the remaining civilian deaths impossible to determine.

According to the figures, civilian deaths inflicted by the Taliban and other insurgents in 2009 -- about 1,630 -- represented a 40 percent increase over the previous year. Deaths caused by the United States and its allies dropped by nearly a third.

But in a sign of the ongoing tensions between Afghan civilians and foreign forces, fallout continued Wednesday from protests over allegations that U.S. troops had desecrated a Koran and defiled local women. Eight protesters were fatally shot by Afghan troops during protests Tuesday in Garmsir, a town in Helmand province. U.S. military commanders in the area accused Taliban provocateurs of inciting the violence by spreading false rumors.

U.S. troops also opened fire, but officers said they killed only a sniper and avoided shooting at civilians during the protests.

"People will sometimes try to employ the lowest common denominator, which is, they can't think of anything else to do but find a religious issue to take exception to and exploit that, even though it has nothing to do with us," said Col. George Amland, the second-in-command of the Marine brigade in Helmand.

Amland said the Marines "acted with a great deal of restraint" during the protests. Marines and local government officials met Wednesday with civilians in a traditional Afghan meeting, or shura, to discuss the incident and try to defuse tensions.

Also on Wednesday, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, ended a two-day visit to Afghanistan by chiding U.S. coalition partners for not doing more to help in the training of Afghan soldiers. Levin was traveling with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).

Training of the Afghan forces is a key component of President Obama's new war strategy and is expected to allow for the gradual drawdown of American troops beginning next year. But Levin said Wednesday that "we only have about 37 percent of the trainers that we need" because NATO and coalition allies have not kept their commitments.

"It is quite unacceptable, and we need a lot more of our coalition partners to step forward," Levin told journalists at Kabul International Airport.

Levin said that of the 4,235 trainers planned, only 1,574 were in place. He said countries that were unwilling to commit troops to combat missions in Afghanistan should be more willing to send trainers.

Meanwhile, NATO announced the deaths of four U.S. service members in three attacks in the east and south. Their deaths bring the number of U.S. troops killed this year to 14.

Partlow reported from southern Afghanistan.

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