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Civilian Casualties Surge in Afghanistan Fighting, U.N. Says

KABUL, Afghanistan — Driven by increased ground combat between insurgents and government forces, civilian casualties in Afghanistan surged 24 percent through the first half of the year to their highest levels since 2009, according to the United Nations, in a grim signal of the way the war here is changing from the same period a year ago.

For the first time since the United Nations began publishing tallies of Afghans killed and wounded by the conflict, ground fighting has emerged as the deadliest facet of the war, instead of improvised explosive devices, which held that dubious distinction in the past. The death toll was especially high for women and children.
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The report illustrates how exceptionally bloody the war has become and how the composition of the forces has changed. For the most part, the Americans have stopped fighting. Now, when coalition commanders say that Afghan forces are in the lead in combat across the country, it is more than just a hopeful talking point. Spikes in violence have occurred across Afghanistan, partly because the insurgents no longer have to worry about coalition troops coming to the aid of the Afghan forces.

The numbers, to some degree, bear this out. While insurgents were responsible for double the number of civilians killed compared with the same period in 2009, that figure has halved for pro-government forces — almost entirely the result of fewer coalition airstrikes.

The report offers a useful snapshot of an increasingly opaque war. With fewer coalition forces around the country to monitor the fighting, the country’s defense and interior ministries distribute most data and information about the violence. However, both ministries are notoriously bad about sharing accurate information on police and military casualties. The picture that emerges from their sporadic reports is that the death toll of the country’s security forces seems to be increasing.

The significant increase in fighting undermines assertions made early in the coalition troop drawdown that the insurgents would be less willing to fight their fellow Afghans. While in the past the Taliban might have often opted for roadside bombs to attack the well-armed coalition forces, they have recently been increasingly willing to test their luck with face-to-face fighting against the Afghan forces, particularly in areas with dense civilian populations.

Unlike coalition forces, whose rules of engagement are designed to minimize civilian casualties, Afghan forces and insurgents are less discriminating. The Afghan Army will regularly lob mortars into villages where they believe insurgents are lurking. The militants, meanwhile, will fire rockets at civilian areas from a distance, hoping to hit government forces but often failing.

“The nature of conflict in Afghanistan is changing in 2014 with an escalation of ground engagements in civilian-populated areas,” Jan Kubis, the United Nations special representative for Afghanistan, said in a statement. “The impact on civilians, including the most vulnerable Afghans, is proving to be devastating.”
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Deaths and injuries to children caused by the increase in ground fighting more than doubled from the same period a year ago, while two-thirds more women were caught in the fighting. More than half of the casualties were caused by grenades and mortars landing on homes and in farmland and playgrounds. The remaining injuries and deaths resulted from civilians caught in crossfire.

“In 2014, the fight is increasingly taking place in communities, public places and near the homes of ordinary Afghans, with the death and injury to women and children in a continued disturbing upward spiral,” Georgette Gagnon, the United Nations director for human rights here, said in a statement.

Nearly three-quarters of the casualties in the first half of the year were caused by the insurgency, the United Nations report said, while pro-government forces were responsible for less than 10 percent. The United Nations said that about 12 percent of the casualties could not be attributed to a specific party.

In a reminder of the dangers faced by civilians in even the most heavily guarded parts of Afghanistan, a group of suicide bombers attacked the Police Headquarters and the office of the governor of Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, Afghan officials said.

Both buildings are in a densely populated area of the city of Kandahar, and initial reports offered by Afghan officials indicated that civilians may have been killed or wounded.

The assault began around noon, when the attackers detonated at least two motorcycles laden with explosives outside the governor’s palace, Dawa Khan Minapal, a spokesman for the governor, said. At least seven attackers tried to storm the building, though by early afternoon government officials said that they had all been shot after failing to breach the compound.

At least two border guards were killed and four other members of Afghan security forces were wounded in the attack, said Mr. Minapal. Details of civilian casualties were not immediately available.

Around the same time, several suicide bombers tried to storm the Police Headquarters, said Zia Durani, a spokesman for the police in Kandahar.

The police quickly confronted the attackers, and “firefights are ongoing, and the bombers are trying to enter,” Mr. Durani said. “They are positioned near the headquarters and are engaged with the police.”

He said there were an unspecified number of police and civilian casualties in the attack.

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