The number of civilians killed in Afghanistan leapt by more than 40 percent last year, according to a survey released Tuesday by the United Nations, the latest measure of how the intensifying violence between the Taliban and American-led forces is ravaging that country.
The death toll — 2,118 civilians killed in 2008, compared with 1,523 in 2007 — is the highest since the Taliban were ousted in November 2001, at the outset of a war with no quick end in sight.
Civilian deaths have become a political flash point in Afghanistan, eroding public support for the war and inflaming tensions with President Hamid Karzai, who has bitterly condemned the American-led coalition for the rising toll. President Obama's decision to deploy more troops to Afghanistan raises the prospect of even more casualties.
The U.N. report found that the Taliban and other insurgents caused the majority of the civilian deaths, primarily through suicide bombers and roadside bombs, many aimed at killing as many civilians as possible.
Taliban fighters routinely attacked American and other pro-government forces in densely populated areas, the report said, apparently in the hope of provoking a response that would kill even more civilians.
But the report also found that Afghan government forces and those of the American-led coalition killed 828 people last year, up sharply from the previous year. Most of those were killed in airstrikes and raids on villages, which are often conducted at night.
American military spokesmen in Kabul, Washington and Tampa, the headquarters of Central Command, did not respond to requests for comment.
Special operations groups like Navy Seals and paramilitary units operated by the CIA often conduct raids in Afghanistan, and often at night. Such groups typically operate outside the normal chains of command, which means that their presence and movements are not always known by regular field commanders.
The report also said the airstrikes that went awry were often those called in by troops under attack. Under such circumstances, some of the normal rules may not apply. Karzai has been especially critical of airstrikes, saying they are eroding public support for his government and for the effort to defeat the Taliban.
For all the civilians killed at the hands of the Afghan government and American-led forces, the Afghan people have more to fear from the insurgents, the report said. Not only did Taliban fighters kill more civilians, but they tried repeatedly to kill as many as they could.