5:02pm

Wed March 9, 2011
Afghanistan

U.S.-Led Forces Cause Fewer Afghan Civilian Deaths

Originally published on Wed March 9, 2011 8:23 pm

People in Afghanistan got a look Wednesday at a report that quantifies one of the most painful parts of the Afghan war: civilian casualties.

The report comes amid widespread anger over civilian deaths caused by NATO airstrikes. But the numbers show that the percentage of civilian deaths caused by NATO and Afghan government forces actually fell last year.

While war-related civilian deaths increased by 15 percent, most of the deaths were caused by insurgents, according to the report from the United Nations and a prominent Afghan human-rights group.

Making Apologies

Defense Secretary Robert Gates' latest trip to Afghanistan came at the crest of a wave of anger over a NATO airstrike that killed nine young boys northeast of Kabul. He joined President Obama and NATO commander Gen. David Petraeus in making a public apology.

"This breaks our heart," Gates said. "Not only is their loss a tragedy for their families; it is a setback for our relationship with the Afghan people, whose security is our chief concern."

Gates was standing next to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who earlier in the week had said that apologies are not enough. That tension is one reason the latest report on civilian casualties drew so much attention.

Grim Statistics

At the news conference releasing the report, Sima Samar, the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, read a list of grim statistics from 2010.

Samar said the war claimed the lives of at least 2,777 civilians — three-quarters of those deaths caused by the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Assassinations by insurgents nearly doubled last year, to more than 460.

"Behind these numbers and statistics are faces. These are human beings, and these are Afghan civilians, who now for 30 years have paid most of the price of any conflict in this country," said Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special representative for Afghanistan.

Actions by the NATO coalition and Afghan security forces were linked to 440 civilian deaths. But de Mistura underlined one statistic in the report: Civilian deaths caused by those forces fell by 25 percent from 2009.

"The figures indicate that the international forces have made an effort to reduce civilian casualties," he said.

Georgette Gagnon, the U.N. Mission's director for human rights, said this year's report contains 25 recommendations for reducing civilian deaths.

"First, to the anti-government elements, we would simply say, 'Stop attacking civilians. Stop attacking schools, mosques and hospitals, because these are also civilian places,' " Gagnon said.

To the NATO and Afghan security forces, de Mistura had a starkly simple message: "One civilian victim is one too many."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

A report was released today that quantifies a tragic fact of war, in this case the war in Afghanistan. We're talking about civilian casualties. The report, from the U.N. and a prominent Afghan human rights group, comes amid anger in Afghanistan over recent NATO airstrikes that killed civilians. It shows that the number of civilian deaths caused by NATO and Afghan government forces actually fell last year.

As NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Kabul, the report also says that most civilian deaths were caused by insurgents.

COREY FLINTOFF: On Monday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates became the latest top American official to publically apologize for a NATO airstrike that killed nine young boys northeast of Kabul.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): This breaks our heart. Not only is their loss a tragedy for their families, it is a setback for our relationship with the Afghan people, whose security is our chief concern.

FLINTOFF: Gates was standing next to President Hamid Karzai, who earlier in the week had said that apologies are not enough. And that tension is one reason why the latest report on civilian casualties drew so much attention.

Sima Samar, the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, read a list of grim statistics from 2010.

Dr. SIMA SAMAR (Chairperson, Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission): (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Samar said the war-related civilian deaths were up by 15 percent last year, claiming the lives of at least 2,777 people. She said three-quarters of those deaths were caused by the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Assassinations by insurgents nearly doubled last year, to more than 460.

STAFFAN DE MISTURA (Special Representative, United Nations Assistance Mission, Afghanistan): But behind these numbers and these statistics are faces. These are human beings, and these are Afghan civilians who now for 30 years have paid most of the price of any conflict in this country.

FLINTOFF: That's Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special representative for Afghanistan.

Actions by the NATO coalition and Afghan security forces were linked to 440 civilian deaths. But de Mistura underlined one statistic in the report: Civilian deaths caused by those forces fell by 25 percent from 2009.

Mr. DE MISTURA: The figures indicate that the international forces have made an effort to reduce the civilian casualties.

FLINTOFF: Georgette Gagnon, the U.N. Mission's director for Human Rights, said this year's report contains 25 recommendations for reducing civilian deaths.

Ms. GEORGETTE GAGNON (Mission Director, Human Rights, United Nations): First, to the anti-government elements, we would simply say: Stop attacking civilians. Stop attacking schools, mosques and hospitals, because these are also civilian places.

FLINTOFF: To the NATO and Afghan security forces, de Mistura had a starkly simple message: One civilian victim is one too many.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.