June 22, 2011

Taliban Behind Most Afghan Civilian Casualties

The casualty trend, which could help shift Afghan public opinion toward the coalition, comes as President Obama tells the nation in an address Wednesday night his plans for reducing U.S. troops in Afghanistan. There are about 100,000 U.S. servicemembers there now.

The Taliban continues to use civilians as human shields and employ suicide attacks and roadside bombs indiscriminately, coalition officials say.

"The vast majority of civilian casualties are caused by the Taliban," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Timothy Zadalis, who is part of a joint Afghan-coalition team that investigates reports of civilian casualties. The coalition includes NATO members and other U.S. allies.

The coalition's figures on responsibility for civilian deaths approximate an earlier independent estimate by the United Nations. A U.N. report blamed the Taliban for 75% of 2,777 deaths and 78% of 4,343 injuries in 2010.

The coalition report that attributes 85% of civilian deaths and injuries to the Taliban is based on figures from January to May of this year. The command did not release the number of civilians killed or injured during that time.

The coalition for the past several years has attempted to limit airstrikes and other firepower to reduce civilian casualties.

Independent analysts agree with the trend cited by the coalition. John Nagl, a retired Army officer and president of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank, said the coalition has become more precise in its targeting.

NATO airstrikes that mistakenly hit civilians undermine support for coalition efforts among the Afghan public, the Pentagon has said.The Taliban regularly accuses the coalition of killing and injuring civilians. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has also rebuked the coalition for causing civilian casualties.

Nagl said the Taliban only hurts its cause by attacking non-military targets, such as assassinating Afghan government officials. "They're targeting in most cases civilians who have done a decent job of supporting the people," Nagl said. "That comes at a price in credibility."

Winning over public opinion is a central goal of the coalition's war strategy.

The Afghan news media are beginning to seek both sides of an incident, said Marine 1st Lt. Tyler Balzer, a coalition spokesman. "We've seen a significant shift from them just reporting what the Taliban says. They have come to trust us a lot more and the Taliban a lot less."