- Associated Press - Monday, July 12, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Escalating violence in Afghanistan is now the worst since the early months of the nearly 9-year-old war, killing 1,074 civilians so far this year as international forces struggle to establish security, an Afghan rights group said Monday.

However, the share of civilians killed by international forces is dropping — and the number dying in NATO airstrikes has been halved — thanks to restrictive rules of engagement issued last year, the Afghanistan Rights Monitor said.

Despite speculation that newly arrived coalition commander Gen. David H. Petraeus would change the policy, which critics say increases danger to American and other foreign troops, a NATO spokesman reiterated over the weekend that would not happen.

Violence has soared across Afghanistan in recent months, as 30,000 more American troops arrived to bolster the international force. The reinforcements are moving into Taliban strongholds in the south and east of the country to try to strengthen Afghan government control, and insurgents have responded with a wave of ambushes, suicide attacks, roadside bombs and assassinations.

The war’s escalation has taken a huge toll on the Afghan people, with 212 civilians killed last month alone, said Ajmal Samadi, director of the independent Afghanistan Rights Monitor, which compiled its statistics from interviews with witnesses, families of victims, local officials and media reports.

The group, which is supported by private donations, recorded 1,200 violent incidents in June, the highest number in any single month since 2002.

“In terms of insecurity,” it said in a new report, “2010 has been the worst year since the demise of the Taliban regime.”

Last month was also the deadliest of the war for coalition forces, with 103 international troops killed, 60 of them American.

The majority of the civilians killed so far this year — 61 percent — died in insurgent attacks, particularly from roadside bombs the Taliban plant across the country, said the group.

The rise in civilian casualties shows the international force has yet to succeed in its goal of protecting the Afghan people, the centerpiece of the NATO counterinsurgency strategy. The aim is to provide security against Taliban attacks to win support of the population so they will give information to authorities on the insurgents.

Still, the share of accidental deaths by coalition and Afghan government forces — which can turn people against the government and foreign troops — is falling, the Afghan rights group said in a report.

It said international forces were responsible for 210 civilian deaths from Jan. 1 to June 30 this year — about 20 percent of the total, down from 26 percent for the same period last year.

The 1,076 civilian deaths were up slightly over the same six months last year but represented a sharp increase from the 684 reported by the United Nations for the same period in 2007.

Afghan soldiers and police killed 108 civilians, or about 10 percent, and insurgents were responsible for 661 deaths, or 61 percent, the report said. The remaining 9 percent were killed by private security contracts or criminal gangs or were unclear.

Accidental deaths from NATO airstrikes also dropped by half, to 94, according to the report, which credited the policy of restraint issued by former international forces commander Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal last year that severely limits the circumstances in which troops can call in an airstrike or fire into buildings.

Mr. Samadi urged Gen. Petraeus, who replaced Gen. McChrystal this month and who many credit with turning around the war in Iraq, not to change those rules of engagement.

“What we are concerned about is that with the arrival of Gen. Petraeus … those measures might be changed in a way that would allow international forces to use more firepower,” Mr. Samadi said. “Then you could be back in a situation where more civilians could die.”

The rules are unpopular among many, including some troops who believe they cost American lives and force them to give up the advantage of overwhelming firepower to a foe who shoots and melts back into the civilian population.

Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a NATO spokesman, stressed, however, that Gen. Petraeus is committed to the current rules of engagement.

“Our strategic imperative to reduce civilian casualties has not and will not change,” he told reporters Sunday.

Various organizations track civilian casualties in Afghanistan, with differing numbers. Afghanistan Rights Monitor’s statistics were higher than NATO’s tally of 592 noncombatants killed in the first half of this year, 82 percent of them by insurgent attacks and the rest accidental deaths by international forces.

However, the U.N.’s statistics also tend to be higher than NATO‘s. The world body has not yet released its report on casualties for the first half of the year, but in 2009 its count was similar to Afghanistan Rights Monitor’s tally.

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