President Barack Obama came away from NATO’s 60th anniversary summit in Strasbourg, France earlier this month with commitments from several European NATO members to send a total of 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan. The new European forces will have a limited mission, with some providing added security around Afghanistan’s presidential election slated for August, and others training the Afghan army and police.

The president said late last month the U.S. will send 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, 4,000 of them explicitly assigned to a training role. They will join some 38,000 U.S. and 35,000 NATO soldiers already stationed there.

But in an unprecedented action, 11 international aid agencies issued a joint report just days before the NATO summit, urging U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan to take far-reaching steps to cut down on the soaring casualties among civilians.

The report, “Caught in the Conflict,” focuses specifically on military and security issues as they affect Afghan civilians and does not take up broader issues in the conflict. Made public April 3, it is signed by Oxfam International, Save the Children UK, CARE Afghanistan, the Interchurch Organization for Economic Development and seven other organizations.

“In 2008 security conditions in Afghanistan reached their worst levels since 2001 and the total number of insurgent attacks was 50 percent higher than in 2007,” the report states. “The conflict has intensified and spread from the south and southeast, to areas which had been relatively stable, including provinces close to Kabul and in the north and west of the country. Civilians have been increasingly caught up in the conflict.”

Civilian casualties caused by all parties in the armed conflict totaled some 2,100 last year ― 30 percent more than 2007, the agencies said. Over half were caused by anti-government insurgents, but casualties caused by pro-government forces rose by a similar percentage, to a total of 828, which the report said “is generating widespread resentment and undermining support for the wider international peace presence in Afghanistan.”

Air strikes pose a particular problem, the agencies said, with deaths soaring to 552 last year, up from 116 in 2006 and 321 in 2007. “Civilians have also suffered abuses during raids, especially those conducted at night, by pro-government forces, almost always by or with international military forces,” the report said. “A significant number of such raids have involved an excessive use of force, including loss of life, physical assault, damage to property and theft” as well as “aggressive and improper treatment of women.”

The agencies called for “all feasible measures to distinguish between civilians and combatants in all attacks,” and a major tightening of rules covering air attacks and night raids. They also addressed reports of prolonged detentions without trial, and torture and ill-treatment of prisoners, urging that detainees be assured their rights under international law, and greater access to human rights monitors.

The report pointed out that the conflict has seriously disrupted access to health, education and other social services, with hundreds of attacks and threats against schools that killed and injured dozens of children and forced schools to close. Attacks on health workers and clinics forced many to close and left hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians without health care services.

“It is likely that planned increases in troops and military operations during 2009 will lead to higher levels of displacement, further restrictions to social services, and greater impediments on the ability of aid agencies to reach civilians in need of protection and assistance.”

The agencies also highlighted the problems presented by military units like the Provincial Reconstruction Teams and others performing relief activities, a role they said should instead be increasingly undertaken by the United Nations and by strengthened Afghan government programs.

They also warned of efforts including the Afghan Social Outreach Program and the Afghan Public Protection Force that seek to gather information on insurgent activities or to build local policing or counterinsurgency functions, which they said are apt to be targeted and/or taken over by insurgents, warlords or criminal elements.

“There is now wide agreement among policy-makers and politicians that military solutions alone cannot bring peace and stability to Afghanistan,” and any new strategy must include a major expansion of support for rural development along with greater international response to the plight of 8 million Afghans who are “food insecure” the report concluded. “In order to succeed, a comprehensive strategy urgently requires a substantial, coordinated and long-term international commitment both in terms of resources and political will.”

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