Afghans are being are being killed in record numbers, despite a new fighting strategy unveiled by U.S. President Barack Obama's generals and designed to protect the civilian population by sending more than 100,000 U.S. troops to battle a raging Taliban insurgency.
Death tolls gathered for a mid-year United Nations report paint a grim picture of worsening violence - even before the summer's fighting season reached full fury. Ordinary Afghans were being killed in droves, with a casualty rate soaring by more than 30 per cent over 2009.
"Afghan children and women are increasingly bearing the brunt of this conflict," said Staffan de Mistura, special representative of the UN Secretary-General. "They are being killed and injured in their homes and communities in greater numbers than ever before."
The bloody toll is the Taliban's response to a revamped U.S.-led strategy aimed to win Afghan support for the widely discredited and corrupt Kabul government while it refashions itself and the Afghan army and police develop the ability to provide security nationwide.
But with Western populations growing war-weary and several countries, including Canada, setting fixed dates to quit combat, there is growing concern that the Taliban's vow to outlast foreign resolve undermines efforts to shore up Afghan support for President Hamid Karzai's regime.
A year after Mr. Obama installed hard-driving General Stanley McChrystal with a mandate to protect the Afghan population while hunting down and killing Taliban leaders, casualties among both Afghan civilians and foreign soldiers are soaring. Gen. McChrystal, fired in disgrace for bad-mouthing his civilian masters, has been replaced by General David Petraeus, the architect of the successful surge that defeated the insurgency in Iraq, but the "protect the population" strategy seems to hang in the balance.
Tighter controls - particularly on bombing runs - have cut the number of civilians killed by Western forces, although misguided air strikes still enrage Afghans and attract disproportionate media attention.
"We have made progress in our efforts to reduce coalition-caused civilian casualties," Gen. Petraeus said Tuesday, adding that he understood "the measure by which our mission will be judged is protecting the population from harm by either side."
By that metric, the coalition is failing, at least so far, despite a tripling of the number of U.S. troops to more than 100,000 since Mr. Obama made the Afghan war his priority.
"In the battle for hearts and minds you have to give priority to protecting the population, but the impression the Taliban wants to deliver is that "ISAF can't protect you and no one is safe," said retired Colonel Alain Pellerin, executive director of Canada's Conference of Defence Associations Institute.
While the Taliban and other anti-Kabul insurgents were deemed responsible for three-quarters of the nearly 1,300 civilians killed and nearly 2,000 others injured, the overall impression remains of rising violence in a nation less safe.
Col. Pellerin said "it is still too early, perhaps by six months" to judge the success of the revamped U.S.-led counter-insurgency effort, but with Mr. Obama vowing to start pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by next summer, time is running out to persuade Afghans that their future security lies with supporting foreign forces.
"Nine years into the conflict, measures to protect Afghan civilians effectively and to minimize the impact of the conflict on basic human rights are more urgent than ever," said Georgette Gagnon, human-rights director for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, combat deaths among foreign troops have also soared - roughly double this year compared with last year and nearly eight times the 2006 levels when Canadian troops first deployed into the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
Although NATO and U.S. commanders generally avoid estimating Taliban casualties, mindful of the counter-productive "body counts" from the Vietnam era, Col. Pellerin said his military sources suggested the killing rate was roughly 100-to-one.
That would put the Taliban toll at more than 40,000 killed already this year.