Deaths of civilians spike as US, Afghan air forces pound Afghanistan

Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT) October 10, 2018

(CNN)The number of civilians -- mostly women and children -- killed or injured by airstrikes in Afghanistan has risen a startling 39% year on year, according to UN figures released Wednesday, casting fresh scrutiny on the use of air power by the United States and its Afghan partners at a time of near-record bombing and increasing violence.

More civilians have been killed or injured in airstrikes so far this year than all of last, according to a United Nations quarterly assessment of civilian casualties. The rise comes after the departed US commander for the war promised a "tidal wave of air power" to combat a resurgent Taliban. US President Donald Trump has personally delineated a strategy for victory in Afghanistan, and vowed to "push onward to victory with power in our hearts."
Afghans mourn after four children were killed in an airstrike in Ghazni Province on February 7.
The UN report comes as the US ratchets up its involvement in what has become the country's longest-running war. The US has boosted its support for the Afghan Air Force through training and weapons supply, raising concern over the air force's use of US-supplied non-guided bombs that have taken a clear toll on civilian lives.
The UN report shows airstrikes, carried out by both US and Afghan aircraft, have killed or injured 649 civilians so far this year, 39% higher than the same first nine months in 2017, and more than the 631 killed or injured by airstrikes in all of last year. Sixty percent of this year's casualties have been women and children, according to the report.
The report also says that total civilian deaths across Afghanistan -- due to various violent attacks -- stands at 2,798 for the first nine months of this year, slightly up on the same period in 2017.
US and Afghan aircraft are almost equally responsibility for the casualties, according to the report. US figures show its aircraft released a near-record number of bombs in July. They carried out the most airstrikes in one month since 2010, when the US had about eight times as many troops in the country, requiring constant air support at the height of the Obama administration's surge there.
According to the UN report, anti-government elements are still responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths and injuries, accounting for 65% of casualties overall so far this year.
The huge increase in bombing, however, relative to the 14,000 US troops now in country, will spark questions as to whether US forces have been given looser rules of engagement, in a conflict that has now run for 17 years.
In a wide-ranging speech on Afghanistan in August of last year, Trump said he had loosened "restrictions the previous administration placed on our warfighters," yet the exact nature of the new rules hasn't been made public.
In response to the report, US Forces Afghanistan spokesman Cmdr. Grant Neeley reiterated that anti-government elements were the main cause of civilian casualties.
"Indiscriminate targeting of innocent civilians through improvised explosive devices and deliberate suicide attacks has increased in both frequency and lethality. These actions expose the hypocrisy of Taliban who espouse a high regard for this country and its people while creating an environment of death and insecurity."

Afghan Air Force pounds insurgent targets

While the varied use of US air power has at times put civilian life in greater danger, the scale and manner of the airstrikes undertaken by the Afghan Air Force is both relatively new and startling.
Figures given to CNN by the Afghan Ministry of Defense show more than 800 airstrikes since the end of June were carried out by the Afghan Air Force, a body of light aircraft and pilots trained and equipped over the past two years by the US. The Pentagon has asked Congress for $1.8 billion to train and equip the AAF in 2019.