UN Releases Latest On Afghan Civilian Casualties

New figures released by United Nations officials in Kabul, underscore the rising tide of civilian casualties in the war in Afghanistan. The UN blames the Taliban and other insurgent groups for the bulk of the deaths and injuries but civilian casualties caused by NATO troops remain a tricky political problem for the West.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Two facts drew attention when the United Nations surveyed casualties in Afghanistan. The first was that the number of civilian casualties in the war has grown. The second is that Western forces, the NATO alliance are responsible for fewer of them.

We're going to work through the numbers and what they mean with NPR's Kabul bureau chief Quil Lawrence.

And, Quil, let's start with the raw numbers here; how many people were killed over what period of time, according to the U.N.?

QUIL LAWRENCE: Well, the U.N. was only measuring up through October of this year for 2010. But it was still a huge jump from last year. There were 2,400 civilians killed, plus several thousand wounded in the crossfire. Now, it's an 18 percent drop according to coalition figures. It's an 18 percent drop in the numbers caused by the U.S.-led coalition. But overall it's a huge jump from last year.

They say, the U.N., blames the Taliban and other insurgent groups for about three-quarters, 76 percent of the civilian casualties caused in this conflict, they say are caused by insurgents - only 12 percent by the U.S.-led coalition and others by Afghan forces.

INSKEEP: I want to understand what kinds of civilian casualties there are. And with so many, I'm sure it's hard to generalize. But are we talking more about accidental deaths of people killed by a bombs or caught in the crossfires, as you say? Or are we talking about civilians deliberately targeted in some cases?

LAWRENCE: Like you say, it's a complicated calculus. Most of the civilian deaths caused by U.S.-led coalition are from airstrikes, where they perhaps get the wrong targeting information. Or they're targeting a house where they had been receiving fire, and it turns out there were civilians inside that house. Many of the ones blamed on the Taliban are cases where, for example, a car bomb is targeting a police checkpoint - an Afghan police checkpoint or a U.S. convoy - and civilians are nearby.

Some of the recent examples we've seen are where an entire bus will be nearby a car bomb that goes off and it kills many passengers on that bus, or with some of the Taliban's weaponry, it is indiscriminate. It works with a pressure plate. A big roadside bomb just lying there in the road and whoever rolls over it will be caught in this massive explosion, whether it be a U.S. convoy or whether it's, as we saw recently, a minivan filled with a dozen members of one family who were all killed by this massive bomb.

INSKEEP: Are there some instances of innocent civilians being deliberately targeted?

LAWRENCE: It's hard to say. I don't think anybody is targeting civilians deliberately. The Taliban and the coalition, of course, are trying to win hearts and minds here.

INSKEEP: I noticed that the Taliban have been announcing this report.

LAWRENCE: Than Taliban directly addressed the U.N. report. They claim that it was propaganda. They said that the American-led coalition here has killed tens of thousands of civilians since it arrived, which I think is an exaggeration by most people's count. They charge that it's been genocide here.

On the other hand, it's true that the U.N. doesn't have the greatest credibility in Afghanistan. Last year's presidential election that was wholeheartedly endorsed by the U.N. turned out to be riddled with fraud. And so they're an easy target for the Taliban to criticize.

But I should say that some Afghan reports have also said the same thing. Three- quarters of the civilian casualties are seen to be caused by insurgents.

INSKEEP: Afghan reports have said the same thing. But how does this U.N. report and the Afghan reporting that you describe affect the politics in Afghanistan, if at all?

LAWRENCE: It's a sticking point. The Afghan government, while it does have ministry level of people who sign off on most of these operations, it takes almost every opportunity it can to criticize the U.S. and NATO for civilian casualties. President Karzai's office did it again just this week. And that might add to the public perception that it's coalition forces doing most of the killings of civilians here.

Afghans I've spoken with also - they kind of expect more from the U.S. anyhow. I don't think they have any illusions about the Taliban, who during their civil war in the '90s killed many, many civilians. From the U.S., with all of the American advanced technology, they expect the U.S. to be able to tell the difference between civilians and combatants.

INSKEEP: NPR's Kabul bureau chief Quil Lawrence. Quil, thanks very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Steve.

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