UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Monday to extend the NATO-led force in Afghanistan and urged its troops and U.S.-led forces to make additional "robust efforts" to minimize civilian casualties.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long complained that civilian deaths caused by U.S. or NATO military action undermine his government and the international mission.
The issue was propelled to the forefront of U.S.-Afghan relations when an Afghan commission found that an Aug. 22 U.S.-led operation in the western village of Azizabad killed 90 civilians, including 60 children. That finding was backed by a preliminary U.N. report, though the U.S. is still investigating the incident.
The resolution recognized the increased threats posed by Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers, al-Qaida and other extremist groups, and the challenges in dealing with them -- but at the same time the council expressed "its serious concern with the high number of civilian casualties in this context."
It recognized the efforts made by the NATO-led forces and other international troops to minimize the risk of civilian casualties and called on them "to take additional robust efforts in this regard."
This should be done "by the continuous review of tactics and procedures and the conduct of after-action reviews and investigations in cooperation with the Afghan government in cases where civilian casualties have occurred and when the Afghan government finds these joint investigations appropriate," the council said.
Taliban attacks have grown larger and more deadly, making 2008 the most violent year in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban's hard-line Islamist government. At least 120 U.S. soldiers and 104 troops from other NATO nations have died already in 2008, both record numbers. Overall, more than 4,500 people -- mostly militants -- have died in insurgency-related attacks this year.
The council condemned "in the strongest terms all attacks ... and abductions targeting civilians and Afghan and international forces and their deleterious effect on the stabilization, reconstruction and development efforts in Afghanistan."
The resolution extended the mandate of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force until Oct. 13, 2009.
Council diplomats said Russia, which abstained on last year's resolution extending the NATO-led force, insisted on language allocating blame for civilian casualties.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters after Monday's vote that Moscow was "satisfied it is a clear message for the need for more robust efforts" by the NATO-led force and others to deal with "the very disconcerting problem of civilian casualties."
"We were very careful to make sure the position of the government of Afghanistan is reflected in the text ... when referring to joint investigations with NATO, the Afghan government and the United Nations," he said.
"Russia attaches great importance to the international effort to fight terrorism and to fight Taliban in Afghanistan," Churkin said. "We are satisfied that both the gravity of the situation is reflected in the resolution and also the need to be respectful of the position of the Afghan government in that regard."
Libya's deputy U.N. ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi, the only envoy to speak in the council, said "fighting terrorism does not justify in any way the killing of civilians."
The NATO-led force should take "all necessary measures to protect Afghan civilians during ongoing operations" and ensure that their human rights are guaranteed, he said
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the United States is "very pleased" at the unanimous adoption of the resolution, which also "embraces that concept of the central role of the United Nations and coordinating the effort in Afghanistan."
Afghanistan's U.N. Ambassador Zahir Tanin told reporters after the vote that his government was also "very happy" about the unanimous approval of the resolution.
"That is the sign of the continuing engagement of the international community in Afghanistan, and it is not only important for Afghanistan but for the peace and stability in the region and the world," he said.