WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of civilians killed by U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan has risen this year, despite efforts to limit fallout from the widening war against the Taliban, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.
Citing NATO statistics, the Pentagon said U.S. and NATO forces killed 90 civilians from January to April — a 76 percent rise from the 51 deaths in the same period of 2009.
The increase demonstrates the difficulty of shielding Afghans from violence as the United States pours thousands more troops into Afghanistan to challenge the Taliban, often in strongholds where insurgents hide among the population.
The U.S. military has made reducing civilian casualties an explicit goal of its revised Afghan strategy, given that popular support for NATO and Afghan forces is ultimately needed to isolate the Taliban and win the war.
President Barack Obama restated the goal on Wednesday, saying the United States was doing everything possible to avoid killing “somebody who’s not on the battlefield.”
“Our troops put themselves at risk, oftentimes, in order to reduce civilian casualties,” Obama told a joint news conference in Washington with visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
“Oftentimes they’re holding fire, they’re hesitating, they’re being cautious about how they operate, even though it would be safer for them to go ahead and just take these locations out.”
Many of the deaths appeared to be related to several high-profile incidents, top among them an air strike in February that a NATO official said killed 23 civilians.
The NATO official, commenting on the numbers, stressed the increase in killings must be seen in the context of a larger U.S. fighting force that is directly engaging the Taliban in former strongholds.
The United Nations says foreign and Afghan troops killed 25 percent fewer civilians in 2009 than during the previous year. But civilian deaths rose overall because the number killed by insurgents climbed 40 percent.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by John O'Callaghan