KABUL — American-led efforts to avert civilian deaths in the war against the Taliban suffered a new blow over the weekend when a NATO airstrike in southern Afghanistan killed about two dozen civilians.
U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of coalition forces in Afghanistan, sought to contain outrage Monday for the attack by delivering a personal apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He conceded, however, that the attack Sunday was likely to shake public confidence in his pledge to minimize civilian deaths in Afghanistan.
"We are extremely saddened by the tragic loss of innocent lives," McChrystal's statement said. "I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan people, and inadvertently killing or injuring civilians undermines their trust and confidence in our mission. We will redouble our efforts to regain that trust."
Sunday's airstrike was the second in a week to kill Afghan civilians. A week earlier, U.S. Marines killed 12 Afghans during the ongoing offensive in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in southern Afghanistan.
Sunday's strike hit a three-vehicle convoy of civilians in a remote part of the country. There were conflicting estimates of the death toll. The Afghan Council of Ministers said that 27 civilians — including four women and a child — had been killed, while the local police chief said 21 had died. Two others were missing, he said.
McChrystal has made averting civilian deaths a kind of military mantra since he took charge in Afghanistan last year. He put new constraints on airstrikes that sparked concerns from some soldiers, who complained that the restraint was doing little to woo skeptical Afghans.
The change in tactics has had an impact, however.
A recent United Nations report said the number of civilian deaths caused by the U.S., NATO and Afghan government forces fell 28 percent last year. In all, the U.N. found, coalition forces caused about 600 of the 2,400 civilian deaths in 2009.
McChrystal reiterated his directive on the eve of this month's major offensive in Marjah, but the recent incidents again raised official Afghan anger over civilian deaths.
The Afghan ministers called Sunday's attack "unjustifiable."
"This creates an opportunity for the Taliban to use this against the Afghan government and the Americans," said Mohammed Hashim Watanwal, a lawmaker from southern Uruzgan province, where the strike took place. "NATO has said that it will take care to avoid civilian casualties, but they don't follow through."
The vehicles that were hit Sunday were traveling through a Taliban-controlled area, said Saeed Zahir Zia, a local police chief who visited the site of the attack. Zia said the dead included a 3-year-old boy and 9-year-old-girl.
NATO officials said that coalition forces targeted the vehicles because they thought they were filled with Taliban reinforcements preparing to attack NATO and Afghan forces a few miles away.
Coalition forces realized their mistake when they arrived at the scene and found the bodies of women and children.
The police chief said that most of the civilians were Hazara, an ethnic minority in Afghanistan that traditionally has little sympathy for Taliban insurgents, who are predominantly Pashtun.
The attack came a day after Karzai used a speech before the Afghan parliament to prod McChrystal and NATO to step up their efforts to reduce civilian deaths.
"We need to reach the point where there are no civilian casualties," Karzai said as he held up a photograph of an 8-year-old girl who the president said was the only survivor of the Feb. 14 rocket attack in Marjah.
Anger over civilian airstrikes reached an apex last September, when a NATO strike hit two fuel tankers that Taliban fighters had commandeered. The strike set off a huge fireball that killed as many as 142 people, including 30 civilians.
Germany's top commander was forced to resign after revelations that the government had concealed information about the airstrike.
In another development Monday, an influential Afghan warlord long suspected of helping Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora in 2001 as U.S. special forces were closing in was killed in a suicide bombing.
Mohammad Zaman Ghamsharik, also known as Haji Zaman, was killed when the suicide bomber targeted a ceremony in the eastern province of Nangarhar, where local leaders were handing out land for returning refugees. Fourteen others also died.
Zaman spent years in exile after he was accused of helping bin Laden escape. He'd recently returned to Afghanistan and was taking part in the land ceremony.