KABUL, Afghanistan The number of U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan jumped 72 percent in 2012, killing at least 16 civilians in a sharp increase from the previous year, the U.N. said Tuesday in a sign of the changing mission as international forces prepare to withdraw combat forces in less than two years.
The U.S. and NATO have long pledged to keep up the fight against al Qaeda and other militants even as they draw down forces. And drones are expected to take on a greater role as the Americans focus more on special forces operations.
Overall, the full-year toll of civilian deaths in 2012 declined compared to the previous year, according to an annual U.N. report. But the toll spiked in the second half of the year, compared to the same period a year earlier.
That spike suggests the country is likely to face continued violence as the Taliban and other militants fight for control following the impending withdrawal of U.S. and allied combat forces.
Conflict-related violence also struck more women and girls last year, with 301 killed and 563 wounded a 20 percent increase from 2011, the report said.
The findings come as the war in Afghanistan is reaching a turning point, with international troops increasingly taking the backseat in operations as government forces take the lead.
The U.N. mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said 506 weapons were released by drones last year, compared with 294 in 2011. Five incidents resulted in casualties last year, with 16 civilians killed and three wounded, up from just one incident in 2011.
Even as drone attacks increased, the U.N. reported an overall decrease in civilian deaths by airstrikes with the U.S.-led coalition implementing stricter measures to prevent innocent people from being killed.
The U.N. said most of the civilian casualties from drone strikes appear to be the result of weapons aimed directly at insurgents but some may have been targeting errors.
It called for a review of tactical and operational policy on targeting to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law "with the expansion of the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles" in Afghanistan. Drones are highly effective but have strained relations between the U.S. and Pakistan as well as other nations where the strikes are carried out because civilians are sometimes killed alongside targeted terrorists.
Most nations have given Washington at least tacit agreement to carry out the attacks, although the issue has not been prominent in Afghanistan as most drone strikes are targeted against militants on the border with Pakistan.
UNAMA said civilian casualties rose 13 percent to 4,431 in the second half of the year, including more from roadside bombs placed in public areas, compared with the same period in 2011.
That included 1,599 people killed and 2,832 wounded from July 1 to Dec. 31, a jump from 1,556 and 2,832 respectively in the same period the previous year.
It cited a growing number in civilian casualties from roadside bombs even as fewer bystanders were hurt in ground engagements in the troubled south and east of the country.