Afghan Commandos are pictured at the National Military Academy in Kabul on Saturday.

Story highlights

New: Casualties are up among women and girls, report says

81% of civilian casualties were attributed to anti-government forces

U.S. and most NATO nations plan to pull their troops out by end of 2014

"The human cost of the conflict remains unacceptable," a U.N. official says

Civilian deaths in Afghanistan dropped 12% in 2012 – the first time that figure has fallen in six years, a U.N. report said Tuesday.

The report by the U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) credits the decline to:

– fewer suicide bombings

– a decline in aerial attacks

– less ground fighting between pro-government and militant forces

– care taken by those pro-government forces to minimize harm to civilians.

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Deaths down, injuries up slightly

“The decrease in civilian casualties UNAMA documented in 2012 is very much welcome,” said Jan Kubis, a U.N. special representative for Afghanistan. “Yet, the human cost of the conflict remains unacceptable.”

Kubis blames the use of roadside bombs by militants as” the single biggest killer of civilians.”

The report noted a marginal increase in civilian injuries compared to 2011.

The report comes as the United States and most NATO nations plan to pull their troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Civilians in the cross hairs

Despite the overall decrease in casualties – deaths plus injuries – militants increasingly targeted civilians throughout the country and carried out attacks without regard for human life, the report said.

In total, 81% of all civilian casualties in 2012 were attributed to anti-government elements.

The report had harsh words in particular for the Taliban, blaming the group for attacking civilians indiscriminately, even after promising not to target them.

“I welcome strong statements by the Taliban leadership urging its fighters to protect civilians but without enforcing these directives on the ground all that remains are only words,” said Kubis who called on, “all Taliban fighters to protect civilians … and stop using suicide bombers.”

Not all casualty groups down

The news was not encouraging for women and girls, who saw their casualty numbers increase last year, according to the report.

“The number of Afghan women and girls killed and injured in the conflict increased by 20% in 2012,” said Georgette Gagnon, director of human rights for UNAMA. “It is the tragic reality that most Afghan women and girls were killed or injured while engaging in their everyday activities.”

They are often the victims of roadside bombs, tripped by pressure plates embedded in the dirt, the report said.

While the latest numbers show the first improvement in recent memory, at more than 7,500 casualties, they’re still far from what the UNAMA would like to see.

“Conflict-related violence continued to seriously threaten the lives and well-being of thousands of Afghan children, women and men,” Gagnon said. “This situation demands even greater commitment and redoubled efforts to protect Afghan civilians in 2013 and beyond.”