Relations worsen as Karzai rejects U.S. apology over deaths of 9 Afghan boys

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 6, 2011 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan president Hamid Karzai Sunday rebuffed an apology by the American general running the military campaign in his country for the recent deaths of nine boys in a helicopter attack, sending already tense relations with Washington to a new low.

Karzai's increasingly bitter public and private criticism of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan threatens a complete breakdown in the crucial relationship between the Afghan government and Washington. Karzai said that the Afghans would lose trust in international forces as a result of civilian casualties, the continuation of which was "unacceptable".

The Afghan leader's comments came despite speaking directly to President Barack Obama on an hour-long video teleconference Wednesday, the day the boys were killed in northeast Afghanistan. The U.S. president "expressed his deep regret," according to a White House statement issued at the time.

The U.S. plan for Afghanistan depends on gradually handing over responsibility for security and governance to the Afghan government and that requires a level of close cooperation that is imperiled by civilian casualties as well as a string of other points of friction between Kabul and Washington.

General David Petraeus met Karzai Sunday, when he offered a face-to-face apology for the incident in Kunar province, in which nine boys, said to be aged between 7 and 13, who were out collecting firewood when they came under fire from coalition helicopters that thought the children were insurgents.

"The apology is not enough," said Karzai in a statement issued by his office. "Civilian casualties produced by the military operations of coalition forces are the cause of tension in relations between Afghanistan and the United States of America. The people of Afghanistan are fed up from these brutal incidents and apologies and condemnation cannot cure their pain."

Separately, there was a demonstration Sunday in Kabul, in which several hundred people from a left-wing political party protested against civilian casualties and demanded the withdrawal of foreign soldiers, with chants of "Death to America, death to the American government." They also burned an effigy of Obama.

The issue was further inflamed when Petraeus suggested in a recent meeting with Karzai that some "civilian casualties" were caused deliberately by Afghan parents in order to tarnish the coalition, referring to a separate incident in Kunar last month in which locals and Afghan officials claim some 65 innocent people were killed. Coalition forces insist that only insurgents died.

In response to the deaths of the boys, Petraeus instructed all field commanders and attack helicopter crews to study again the rules that he's issued to govern when it is reasonable to open fire. In this case, a coalition investigation found that the helicopter crew had been sent to the wrong place.

According to a United Nations study, three quarters of civilian casualties in Afghanistan are being caused by the Taliban. Some are produced deliberately by attacks on non-military targets such as banks, shopping malls and sports events. Sunday, a roadside bomb in the eastern province of Paktika, assumed to be planted by the insurgents, killed up to 12 civilians, including five children.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special Correspondent Hashim Shukoor in Kabul contributed to this article. )

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