September 7, 2009 / 10:47 AM / 10 years ago

Q+A: Civilian casualties in Afghanistan

KABUL (Reuters) - Scores of civilians died in last week’s NATO air strike on Taliban insurgents in northern Afghanistan, a prominent domestic rights group said on Monday in a first independent estimate of the death toll.

In a report based on more than a dozen interviews with residents, Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM) said between 60 and 70 civilians died in the September 4 strike in the Char Dara district of Kunduz province.

NATO has yet to finish its investigation into the incident, but acknowledged some civilians may have been killed.

Following are some questions and answers on the issue of civilian casualties in Afghanistan

HOW BAD IS THE PROBLEM?

The growing strength of the insurgency across much of Afghanistan combined with an increase of thousands of new foreign troops in the country has led to fiercer fighting and a fast-rising civilian death toll from both sides of the conflict.

Some 800 civilians were killed between January and May this year, a 24 percent increase from the same period in 2008, according to U.N. figures.

More than half the deaths were caused by insurgents and just over a third by international and Afghan forces, the United Nations said. The rest could not be attributed to any of the parties in the conflict.

In 2008, civilian deaths caused by pro-government units, including U.S., NATO and Afghan forces, rose by nearly a third to 828 from a year earlier, the United Nations has said. WHY

THE INCREASE?

One reason is Taliban insurgents have launched more and more deadly raids. While their targets tend to be government officials and foreign and Afghan soldiers, civilian bystanders usually bear the brunt of the attacks.

Another reason, rights groups say, is the dramatic increase in the U.S. military’s use of air strikes.

Last year, air strikes by all foreign forces killed 552 civilians, according to U.N. figures. Civilian deaths as a result of such strikes almost tripled in 2007 compared to 2006 with 321 people killed, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.

In 2007, twice as many tons of bombs were dropped as in 2006, HRW said, citing U.S. Air Force data. More people were killed by air strikes in 2007 than by U.S. or NATO ground fire.

Civilian casualties, HRW says, are rarely the result of planned air strikes on suspected Taliban targets but almost always occur during “opportunity” strikes in support of ground troops under attack.

HOW HAS IT AFFECTED FOREIGN AND AFGHAN RELATIONS?

Civilian casualties have become a deep source of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers, largely stemming from an incident in August 2008 in which Afghan and U.N. investigators say U.S. strikes killed 90 civilians.

Washington initially denied large numbers of civilians had been killed in that incident, only to acknowledge three months later that at least 33 had died.

Tensions were further strained in May this year, when the U.S. military carried out an air strike in the southwest. Afghan officials say that killed 140 civilians while U.S. estimates were between 20 and 35 civilians and 80 to 95 insurgents killed.

Although more civilians die in insurgent attacks, deaths at the hands of foreign forces cause the most outrage among ordinary Afghans and have made many question the presence of international troops.

WHAT HAS THE U.S. TRIED TO DO ABOUT IT?

Shortly after taking command of all foreign forces in June, U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal issued new combat orders designed to reduce civilian casualties, especially from air strikes, underscoring counter-insurgency tactics.

McChrystal has said international forces needed to make a “cultural shift” away from conventional warfare and focus on winning the support of Afghans.

The directive calls for military commanders to “scrutinize” and “limit” the use of close air support. Friday’s incident was the first in which Western forces were accused of killing large numbers of civilians since McChrystal took command.

While his predecessors also introduced measures to try to reduce civilian casualties, McChrystal has said the problem was getting the message to the soldiers on the ground.

Both NATO and the U.S. military say they now also launch immediate investigations alongside Afghan authorities into all civilian death reports and apologize more quickly than before.

Less than 36 hours after last week’s strike, McChrystal flew to the site of the raid and visited victims in hospital.

Editing by Jerry Norton

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