Kabul: The number of US drone strikes in Afghanistan jumped 72 per cent in 2012, killing at least 16 civilians in a sharp increase from the previous year, the UN said today in a sign of the changing mission as international forces prepare to withdraw combat forces in less than two years.
The US 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 UN 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 US and allied combat forces.
Conflict-related violence also struck more women and girls last year, with 301 killed and 563 wounded, a 20 per cent 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 UN 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.
Though civilian casualties from drone strikes rose, the total of civilian deaths by airstrikes for the year fell after the US-led coalition implemented stricter measures to prevent innocent people from being killed.
The UN 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.
US Air Force Lt. Col. Lester T Carroll, a spokesman for International Security Assistance Force, said he couldn`t provide specific information about operational tactics and procedures but pointed to the general decline in civilian casualties due to airstrikes last year.
"ISAF always strives to conduct operations without injuring innocent civilians," he said in an email.