Obama orders 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan; civilian casualties soar

Saying the war against the Taliban is “still winnable,” President Barack Obama ordered 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan to tackle an intensifying insurgency, the White House announced Feb. 17. This will bring US troop levels in Afghanistan to around 55,000. US troops in Afghanistan have already risen from around 30,000 at the beginning of this year to 38,000 now under orders signed by the Bush administration. The new forces will include a Marine expeditionary brigade of some 8,000 troops and an Army brigade of 4,000 soldiers equipped with Stryker armored vehicles, the Pentagon said.

“This increase is necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires,” Obama said. But he also told CBC TV ahead of a visit to Canada: “I’m absolutely convinced that you cannot solve the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban, the spread of extremism in that region, solely through military means. We’re going to have use diplomacy, we’re going to have to use development, and my hope is that in conversations that I have with Prime Minister Harper that he and I end up seeing the importance of a comprehensive strategy.” (Reuters, Bloomberg, Feb. 18)

Meanwhile, a new UN report finds the number of Afghan civilians killed in armed conflict rose 40% last year to a record 2,118 people. The annual report on protection of civilians from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said militants were responsible for 55% of the deaths, but that US, NATO and Afghan forces killed 829 civilians, or 39%. US, NATO and Afghan forces also killed 31% more civilians in 2008 than in 2007. The report found insurgents responsible for 1,160 civilian deaths—65% more than the year before. About 130 deaths couldn’t be accounted for because of issues like crossfire. The report said the 2008 civilian death toll was “the highest of any year” since the Taliban was ousted in 2001.

“The international coalition in Afghanistan is losing public support, one fallen civilian at a time,” said the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC). The US and other members of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan make some condolence payments to the families of civilians killed in battle. But CIVIC said that a “significant number” of families receive no help from international forces and that anger is especially strong when no help is provided. “Every family with losses not recognized and addressed is another obstacle to Afghanistan’s stabilization and development,” the group said.

NATO rejected the UN figures, saying its forces had caused 237 civilian deaths. (AP, BBC News, Feb. 17)

Despite NATO’s disavowal of the UN study, a confidential January report from NATO’s own International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) finds that civilian deaths in Afghanistan increased by 46% last year. (Wikileaks, Feb. 16)

See our last posts on Afghanistan and civilian casualties.

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