KABUL, Afghanistan - The number of U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan rose sharply last year compared with 2011, the United Nations said Tuesday. The increase was a sign that unmanned aircraft are taking a greater role as Americans try to streamline the fight against insurgents while preparing to withdraw combat forces in less than two years.
Drones have become a major source of contention between the U.S. and countries like Pakistan, where covert strikes on militant leaders have drawn condemnation and allegations of sovereignty infringements as family members and other bystanders are killed.
They have not been a prominent issue in Afghanistan, however. While drone attacks have occurred, they have largely been in support of ground troops during operations and have not been singled out by President Hamid Karzai's administration in its campaign against international airstrikes.
In this June 6, 2012 file photo, Afghan villagers gather near a house destroyed in an apparent NATO raid in Logar province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan. The number of U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan jumped 72 percent in 2012, killing at least 16 civilians in a sharp increase from the previous year, the U.N. said Tuesday, in a sign of the changing mission as international forces prepare to withdraw combat forces in less than two years.
The steep rise in the number of weapons fired from unmanned aerial aircraft - the formal term for drones - raises the possibility that may change as U.S. forces become more dependent on such attacks to fight al-Qaida and other insurgents as combat missions are due to end by the end of 2014.
The U.N. mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said 506 weapons were released by drones in 2012, compared with 294 the previous year. Five incidents resulted in casualties with 16 civilians killed and three wounded, up from just one incident in 2011.
Georgette Gagnon, the head of human rights for UNAMA, said it was the first year the U.N. had tried to document civilian casualties from drones.
The U.S. Air Force Central Command also recorded an increase, giving the numbers of weapons released by drones as 243 in 2009, 277 in 2010, 294 in 2011 and 494 in 2012.
Drones are highly effective and most nations have given Washington at least tacit agreement to carry out the attacks.
Peter Singer of the Washington-based Brookings Institution noted that the drone program in Afghanistan is run by the Pentagon, and therefore is more transparent than the CIA drone counterterrorism program in Pakistan.
Singer, who has written extensively about drones, said the number of operations in Afghanistan is increasing, but most are performed in support of troops on the ground.
"This is just another sign of how drones are becoming the new normal," he said.
The U.N. figures were released as part of its annual report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Overall, the full-year toll of civilian deaths in 2012 declined to 2,754, a 12 percent decrease from 3,131 in the same period a year earlier. It was the first time in six years that the civilian death toll dropped.
But the toll spiked in the second half of the year as weather improved, compared with the same period in 2011, suggesting that Afghanistan is likely to face continued violence as the Taliban and other militants fight for control following the impending withdrawal of U.S. and allied combat forces.