GENEVA – The danger posed to Afghan children by continued fighting between Taliban militants and the U.S.-led coalition is greater than at any time since 2002, UNICEF said Thursday.
Presenting his assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, former war correspondent and UNICEF ambassador Martin Bell said the country faces a "make or break" moment in which all the progress made over the past six years could be reversed unless greater efforts are made to protect children.
School enrollments have risen and child mortality is much lower than before the ouster of the Taliban in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, he told reporters in Geneva.
But bombing campaigns by militants and aerial bombardments by NATO forces mean Afghan children "are probably more at risk now than they have been since 2002," Bell said.
Roadside bombings and Taliban suicide attacks directed at foreign troops have killed and injured dozens of bystanders, including children, this year. In some cases militants have directly attacked schools, killing girls, who they believe should not receive an education, according to the report.
The violence, and threats made to parents who send their daughters to school, are keeping a million girls out of education, it said.
"In the first six months of this year, 44 schools have been closed in Afghanistan either as a result of direct attacks or else intimidation of parents and teachers," Bell said.
The intensive use of air power by NATO troops is also putting children at risk, he said. In June, 27 civilians — including 17 children — died when coalition forces bombed Taliban positions in Helmand province.
"The greater use of air power tends to result in higher civilian casualties," Bell said, adding that the issue was a "political and sensitive" issue for NATO. The coalition has repeatedly insisted that it does not target civilians.
The report recommends that nonmilitary efforts and long-term projects are needed to ensure the safety of Afghanistan's children and improve education, health and economic opportunities in the country.