South Asia

Afghan civilian toll points to Isaf mission dilemma

British soldiers involved in current operation Tor Shezada against Afghan insurgents (undated British Ministry of Defence photo)
Image caption There is huge pressure on Isaf to make headway in the fight against the Taliban

This is the latest in a series of biannual reports by the UN and confirms that violence continues to increase across Afghanistan.

It is not just soldiers but civilians who are being killed or injured in unprecedented numbers in this nine-year old conflict.

According to the UN's special representative in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, "the human cost of the conflict is escalating in 2010 and civilian casualties are increasing substantially".

He described the findings as "a wake-up-call".

The 31% rise in civilian casualties tells the story of a war that is evolving with few signs that it is easing.

According to the UN report, more than three-quarters of deaths and injuries are now at the hands of the Taliban, while there has been a marked reduction in those attributed to foreign troops or Afghan security forces.

Women and children in particular are bearing the brunt, with an extraordinary 155% rise in the numbers of young people dying in insurgent bomb blasts.

'Impact'

The Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) has said the figures corroborate its own numbers, which also show that the insurgents are responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths and injuries.

The UN report says the tactical directive issued by Gen Stanley McChrystal last year when he was the commander of Isaf, which imposed strict guidelines on the use of air assaults, has had an impact.

Image caption Civilians often complain that the arrival of foreign troops in their neighbourhoods provokes violence

For a mission that proclaims to be "population-centric" that should be a positive development.

But the dilemma for the government and its international sponsors is that they share a disproportionate part of the blame.

Afghans caught up in suicide blasts and attacks with roadside bombs that are the work of the Taliban often blame Isaf troops for their injuries.

Bereaved families consistently complain that it is the arrival of foreign troops in their neighbourhoods that provokes the violence that leads to death.

Military commanders and Western politicians insist that the increase in violence is an inevitable result of the surge in troops and the deliberate targeting of the insurgents in areas they had previously regarded as "safe havens".

Codes of conduct

Operation Moshtarak in Helmand province followed by Operation Hamkari, which is ongoing in neighbouring Kandahar, have certainly applied more pressure on the insurgents, and there has been an increase in fighting.

But unless that leads to increased security and a decline in deaths and injuries then their chances of success could be slim.

Both the Taliban and Isaf have their codes of conduct.

Both recognise the importance of protecting the population in a battle to win hearts and minds. But on my numerous trips to the south, there is little proof that either is achieving its goal.

A spokesman for the Taliban, Qari Yousef, told the BBC that they were "fighting the Christians to stop them from killing Afghans".

He is adamant that the insurgents are not responsible for civilian casualties and dismissed the report as propaganda by Isaf and Nato.

Mr Yousef said the Taliban deliberately warned people if there was a bomb buried in the road ahead and watched to ensure it was foreign troops who were the target.

Pressure

But a visit to any local hospital in the aftermath of an attack tells a different story.

The wards are often full of people who did nothing other than be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and too many are paying the ultimate price.

This was supposed to be the year when the insurgents lost their momentum and Afghans started to feel safer in their homes, fields, schools and villages.

That simply has not happened yet and there is huge pressure on the new Isaf commander, Gen David Petraeus, to achieve something his many predecessors have failed to.

In his news conference, Staffan de Mistura said this was "a crucial time in a crucial year".

But eight months in, there is very little evidence that the reinvigorated coalition mission is having the desired effect.

Until it does - or until the much talked of "reconciliation process" with the Taliban translates into something meaningful - then men, women and children will continue to be killed and injured here in a war they neither chose or support.

Are you in Afghanistan? Is enough being done to protect civilians? Do you feel safe? Send us your comments:

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