Last year was the most violent year in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, with civilians often paying the highest price. About 1,200 men, women and children considered non-combatants were killed in 2008.
While most civilians were killed by militants, the number of Afghans who died at the hands of Western forces increased by 21 percent, according to a United Nations tally. The majority of victims died in military air strikes and during Western missions to target insurgents.
"Afghans are very, very angry, but surprisingly, their anger is directed mainly at Western forces because many people here believe the West is leaving a trail of innocent victims in their war on terror," Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who reports for NPR from Afghanistan, tells Liane Hansen.
Nelson says a good example is what happened during a joint U.S.-Afghan operation against the Taliban in the town of Azizabad in August.
The ground and air operation had gone after a Taliban leader in the village, and when U.S. and Afghan special forces units showed up to arrest the target, he and his men apparently fired first, resulting in a battle that lasted for hours. When it was over, 90 civilians were dead, 60 of them children, according to the Afghan government and the U.N. The death toll is still disputed by U.S. officials.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has publicly lambasted the West on many occasions, saying it is not doing enough to prevent civilian casualties. "It even got to the point where he and his government were talking about changing potentially changing the status of forces agreement to restrict what the west does in Afghanistan on the ground in their fight against terror," Nelson says.
The increasing death toll at the hands of U.S. and NATO troops can be attributed to several factors, Nelson says, including insufficient troops to deal with the mountainous terrain in Afghanistan. This basically means that U.S. and NATO forces are turning to air strikes to cover more ground, she says. Another problem is bad information being provided by informants combined with special forces operations, which generally don't coordinate with local authorities. Other troops on the ground will consult with local authorities to avoid high-casualty situations.
"Complicating it even further," Nelson says, "is that a lot of Afghan households in these rural and bad areas — basically every Afghan has a gun. There are no police to protect them, so they protect themselves.
"So if they see these foreigners coming in, especially if they are approaching women in the compound, they will open fire," she says. "And what are the troops going to do? They're going to have to fire back, and if they need help, they'll call in air strikes and you end up with a lot of civilian casualties."
Another problem, Nelson says, is that "when the Taliban do engage the West, which is quite often, they will do so from villagers' homes and use people as human shields, and certainly that's what happened in the Azizabad case according to the Americans."
To ease the anger, the Americans do something many other NATO nations do not, Nelson points out. They make condolence payments when there is a proven incident of civilian death. Such payments are made quite liberally and quite frequently, she says.
"Also, the West has changed its rule of engagement in the past year or so, really addressing the need to be more careful," Nelson says. "They have also improved public outreach and started conducting joint investigations since Azizabad.
Nelson says it's also noteworthy that Taliban leaders have issued fatwas, or religious decrees, demanding that their fighters not kill innocent Afghans. "Yet even with all these efforts afoot," she says, "it seems a lot of people here expect that the civilian death toll is going to go up this year, especially with at least 20,000 more American troops coming in and increased pressure to clear out insurgents and improve security before the Afghan presidential election this fall."