SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. In Afghanistan, the United Nation has just released its annual survey of civilian casualties in the country, and the news is grim. NPR's Sean Carberry reports from Kabul.
SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Last year at this time, there was a sense of optimism. Civilian casualties finally appeared to be declining. But the new report shows a 14 percent increase in civilian casualties in 2013 with nearly 3,000 killed and more than 5500 injured.
GEORGETTE GAGNON: This year, we found, for example, that deaths and injuries to children and women were at record high levels.
CARBERRY: Georgette Gagnon is the human rights director for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan. She says that's a byproduct of the changing nature of the conflict in Afghanistan. With few foreign troops on the ground and Afghan forces leading combat operations, militants have had more freedom of movement.
GAGNON: The fight was brought closer to home, closer to communities and families.
CARBERRY: As a result, the numbers of casualties caused by ground engagements essentially civilians caught in the crossfire is soaring. Twenty-seven percent of civilians killed died during ground engagements. That's the second-leading killer behind improvised explosive devices or roadside bombs. Gagnon says it's difficult to pin responsibility on one party or another during ground engagements, but there is a worrying trend.
GAGNON: We did see quite an increase in civilian casualties by Afghan forces.
CARBERRY: She says there was more than a doubling of casualties caused by Afghan forces on the ground, though the report shows militants also caused record numbers of civilian casualties last year.
GAGNON: Seventy-four percent of civilian casualties are caused by anti-government elements.
CARBERRY: Militants are increasingly targeting any civilians that they consider to be pro-government, ranging from civil servants to teachers to mullahs. By comparison, the U.N. says Afghan forces caused 8 percent of civilian casualties and NATO, 3 percent. For their part, Afghan forces are trying to improve their tactics to protect civilians, says Major General Afzal Aman, head of operations in the Afghan Ministry of Defense.
MAJOR GEN. AFZAL AMAN: (Speaking foreign language)
CARBERRY: Since the beginning of NATO training of Afghan forces, he says, we have been emphasizing ways to prevent civilian casualties, like improving our targeting and not using heavy weapons in civilian areas. He says the growth of casualties caused by Afghan forces is unacceptable. The U.N. says that Afghan police and army still need more training and discipline in firefights, especially now that they're taking over combat duties from NATO forces.
And a new concern has emerged with the Taliban saying they intend to disrupt the presidential election in April.
GAGNON: There were several attacks on election workers.
CARBERRY: So looking through all this, is there any good news in this year's report?
GAGNON: No. I can't say that there is. It has not been a good year for Afghan civilians.
CARBERRY: Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.