KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO disagreed Thursday over whether an airstrike in northern Afghanistan killed the top member of a re-emerging insurgent group or 10 election workers.
The dispute here refueled some of the thorniest issues plaguing U.S.-Afghan relations as Defense Secretary Robert Gates made his first visit to Afghanistan since President Barack Obama ousted Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the Afghanistan commander and replaced him with Gen. David Petraeus.
Karzai strongly condemned the attack in a written statement, but he didn't demand an apology from the U.S. when he appeared at a new conference with Gates, who arrived hours after the strike. Both men called for an investigation.
U.S. officials said the target was a senior member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group that's re-emerged as an ally to the Taliban here. The movement found refuge in Afghanistan under Taliban rule in the 1990s but had largely disappeared after U.S. forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001 until last year, when it resurfaced in northern Afghanistan to help the Taliban expand beyond traditional strongholds in the south and east.
Gates apparently was unaware of Karzai's strong condemnation of the attack when the two men appeared together at the news conference. Gates said the airstrike killed a key fighter and that he didn't know about the claims that civilians also had been killed.
"This is the first I had heard that civilians have been killed, and we certainly will look in to that," Gates said.
A coalition statement described the target as "the deputy shadow governor for Takhar province" and said he'd been killed in a "precision airstrike," but did not name him. Local officials said the strike occurred around 9 a.m. in the Rostaq district of Takhar province.
"After careful planning to ensure no civilians were present, coalition aircraft conducted a precision airstrike on one sedan and later followed with direct from an aerial platform," the statement read.
The statement said "initial reflections" indicated that eight to 12 insurgents were killed or wounded, including a Taliban commander, all of them carrying weapons.
In the run up to Afghanistan's Sept. 18 elections, there have been increased attacks throughout the country on election workers.
Civilian casualties from allied airstrikes have been a major source of tension between the U.S. military and the Karzai government. McChrystal's first order when he took command in Afghanistan last year required U.S. troops to ensure that no civilians were at risk before calling in artillery or air support. Petraeus essentially renewed that order when he took command.
Civilian casualties remain common, however. Hours after the morning attack, the military issued another statement saying it had had received reports that an airstrike in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan also had killed civilians. The military said it was investigating that incident as well.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter