UNITED NATIONS - Aid groups are demanding increased protections for civilians in Afghanistan as fighting continues to escalate in the Central Asian country that is regaining its status as a focal point of the U.S.-led "war on terror."
In raising its concerns about the growing number of deaths of civilians, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) says both the U.S.-led allied forces and militant groups are violating international laws of conflict.
"Searches conducted by Afghan and international forces have on some occasions involved excessive use of force, extra-judicial killings, destruction of property, and/or mistreatment of suspects," said ACBAR director Anja de Beer.
The militants, on the other hand, are mounting an "increasingly vigorous, systematic terror campaign of threats, abductions, and executions aimed against members of the civilian population," de Beer added in a statement.
According to the group, the escalating violence has forced the closure of a large number of schools and health facilities. The fighting is also holding up the implementation of vital development projects and has forced many people to flee their homes and villages in recent months.
Afghanistan has been mired in a vicious cycle of violence since 1979 when local communist groups formed a government in Kabul with the help of the former Soviet army. They were overthrown by Islamist militants backed by the United States in the early 1990s.
U.S. officials largely ignored the country and the plight of its people from then until 2001, when Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda group launched its attacks on the United States.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, United States and other Western forces invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Islamist Taliban government, which was believed to have close links to Al-Qaeda, even allowing the terrorist group to maintain training camps on its soil. The U.S.-led Western forces have remained stationed in Afghanistan ever since in an effort to root out Taliban fighters.
Despite its heavy military presence in Afghanistan, however, analysts say the United States has largely failed to achieve its objectives, as militants in the south and east of the country have not only continued to maintain their strongholds but have grown in recruiting new members.
According to officials from ACBAR and other organizations, tens of thousands of innocent people have been killed in the country since 2001.
This year, according to ACBAR, at least 2,500 people have lost their lives in the Afghan conflict. Although it is hard to ascertain the exact figures, the group claims that up to 1,000 of the dead were civilians.
The number of civilian casualties in July of this year is believed to be higher than in any other month in the last six years.
ACBAR is a coalition of 100 organizations that provide humanitarian aid and help with reconstruction in Afghanistan, including local groups -- like the Afghan Women's Education Center and the Helping Afghan Farmers Organization -- and international groups like Action Against Hunger, Action Aid, and the American Friends Service Committee.
Humanitarian groups delivering aid to civilians in Afghanistan say their workers' lives are constantly under threat from air raids by U.S. forces and attacks by militants. This year alone, as many as 19 people working for different aid organizations were killed.
"This situation has forced many aid agencies to restrict the scale ad scope of their development and humanitarian operations," said de Beer. That, at a time when there is a severe drought in some parts of the country and the price of food is going up.
"Afghans are facing extremely difficult circumstances," he added. "Young children and pregnant and breastfeeding women are at especially high risk. Increasing and spreading insecurity is jeopardizing the delivery of essential humanitarian assistance to these people."
ACBAR members say they want all warring parties to avoid the use of torture and violence against innocent civilians in accordance with the international laws of armed conflict and ensure that there are proper investigations into such incidents.
Recently, a major international rights watchdog warned that international aid to Afghanistan would go to waste if the civilian population remained caught up in the crossfire from the warring parties.
"Most Afghans continue to live in an insecure environment where many of their basic human rights remain unfulfilled," said Brad Adams of the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) organization, which monitors rights abuses across the world.
In a statement, Adams urged the Afghan government and international donors to ensure the "full and genuine participation" of Afghan civil society, including the independent Afghan Human Rights Commission, in high-level policy meetings and deliberations.
Currently, a vast majority of Afghanistan's 28 million people are living in abject poverty with an average life expectancy of about 44 years. As the armed conflict continues to no visible end, many people are turning to drug lords for work on poppy farms.
Experts at the United Nations who monitor the worldwide trade in narcotics say Afghanistan remains a leading illicit producer of opium, which is used to manufacture heroin, a powerful drug that remains widely used throughout the Western world.
Facing violence, poverty, and a growing drug trade, observers say Afghanistan needs more help from the international community to get back on a path to peace and prosperity.
"Much more investment and work remains before the international community fulfills the multiple commitments it has made to assist Afghanistan to achieve sustainable development, local and regional security, and respect for human rights," said HRW's Adams.
© 2008 One World