Civilian deaths hit new high as West looks for Afghan exit

More civilians are dying in Afghanistan than at any time during the past decade, a new United Nations report says, as the war spreads to previously safe parts of the country and insurgents increase their use of suicide bombers, child soldiers and homemade bombs. Afghanistan's grim arithmetic for the first six months of the year includes 1,462 civilians killed, 80 per cent of them by insurgent groups, and another 2,144 wounded: a 15 per cent jump on the same period in 2010.

"The rising tide of violence and bloodshed in the first half of 2011 brought injury and death to Afghan civilians at levels without recorded precedent in the current armed conflict," the UN mission in Kabul said yesterday.

It added that there was every likelihood the true total is higher than reported, because the closure of one of its offices following a deadly attack had left it unable to collect some data.

The worrying data comes as coalition partners are all announcing major reductions in troop numbers and fixed dates on when they expect to have completely withdrawn from Afghanistan when responsibility for security will be taken on by the Afghan security forces. The preparedness of these domestic forces to take on the job of protecting the Afghan population has been questioned on many occasions.

Among the more harrowing examples of the worsening conflict – and increasingly brutal tactics – was the Taliban's increased use child soldiers, including as suicide bombers.

On 12 May a 12-year-old killed three civilians and injured 12 others in an attack in eastern Afghanistan. He was the youngest-recorded suicide bomber.

There were also increasing numbers of women suicide bombers, the report said, and in one instance, "insurgents instructed an eight-year-old girl to bring a package of explosive devices to a police vehicle. The insurgents remotely detonated the bomb, killing the girl."

The report singled out for particular censure the Taliban's "unlawful" use of homemade bombs, its assassination campaign against civilian officials, and its attacks on hospitals. It called pressure-plate activated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – the Taliban's weapon of choice – "de facto landmines" that killed indiscriminately. Homemade bombs were responsible for 30 per cent of all civilian deaths.

Nato also came in for some criticism. The UN found that the number of civilians killed in air strikes "particularly by Apache helicopters" had shot up, especially in Afghanistan's east and south-east where Nato has not been able to meet an intensifying insurgency with as many ground troops as it has devoted to the southern flashpoints of Helmand and Kandahar.

Although the number of civilians killed in night raids is down, according to UN figures, "they remain one of the most despised tactics in the eyes of the Afghan population". That point was underlined after Afghan officials claimed Nato forces had killed six civilians in a raid hours earlier, although Nato insists they were insurgents. President Hamid Karzai ordered an investigation.

UN rights officials also argued that Nato plans to hand over control of parts of the country to Afghan security forces had provoked a wave of insurgent attacks designed to undermine the credibility and morale of Afghan forces.

The reality of the findings was driven home by a bombing in a mosque packed with mourners for the late Ahmed Wali Karzai, the President's brother, who was assassinated earlier this week. It left four dead including a child and a leading member of Kandahar's religious council, a cleric who had disparaged Taliban tactics for years. The bomber is thought to have smuggled explosives inside the mosque inside his turban.