Karzai tells NATO to stop airstrikes in Afghanistan

Afghan President Hamid Karzai at a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai at a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul. AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai, angered by an airstrike that Afghan officials said killed 14 civilians over the weekend, demanded Tuesday that the U.S.-led coalition halt aerial strikes on Afghan houses and threatened to take unspecified actions if the coalition doesn't comply.

It was Karzai's strongest statement yet on airstrikes, which have long bedeviled the relationship between the Afghan government and the coalition, and came three days after Karzai ordered his defense minister to put an end to coalition night raids, another tactic that Karzai also says too often results in civilian casualties.

"I have warned NATO forces repeatedly that aerial attacks on the houses of Afghans are not allowed," Karzai said. "This is their last attack."

Karzai didn't say how the Afghan government would prevent coalition airstrikes. But he warned that if the strikes continued, it would threaten the U.S.-Afghan alliance in the war against the Taliban.

"If NATO acts like an occupier, then Afghans know how to deal with that," he said, a reference to the occupation of Afghanistan by the British and Soviet armies in the 20th century. Both armies were forced to withdraw after years of Afghan guerrilla attacks.

Both the current U.S. commander, Army Gen. David Petraeus, and his predecessor, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, issued orders limiting when air strikes can be called in hopes of preventing civilian casualties, but Karzai has continued to complain that those rules haven't stopped civilian casualties from errant or mistaken bombings.

The International Assistance Security Force, as the coalition is known, defended its actions, saying its statistics showed that the Taliban was responsible for 86 percent of civilian casualties — a U.N. report issued earlier this year basically supported that conclusion — and noting that the Taliban "had repeatedly fired on medical evacuation aircraft, carried out suicide attacks in bazaars full of Afghan women and children — and this week attempted to use an Afghan ambulance as a suicide vehicle bomb."

ISAF acknowledged, however, that the fact that its forces are made up of foreign troops makes the deaths it causes more sensitive politically than deaths caused by the Afghan Taliban.

"General Petraeus has repeatedly noted that every liberation force has to be very conscious that it can, over time, become seen as an occupation force," said the statement, which was attributed to Rear Adm. Victor Beck, ISAF's director of public affairs. "We are in agreement with President Karzai on the importance of constantly examining our actions in light of that reality — and we are doing just that."

Karzai's statement was in response to an airstrike Saturday that killed 14 people in Helmand province. U.S. Marines called in the strike after they came under fire from Taliban insurgents in the Now Zad district, according to the Helmand governor's office.

The strike leveled two houses, killing 12 children and two women, the governor's spokesman said. On Tuesday, Marine Maj. Gen. John Toolan, the ISAF regional commander for Helmand, issued a statement apologizing "for the nine civilians who were killed during the incident."

Toolan's statement didn't account for the discrepancy in the number of civilians killed. He said one Marine died when five Taliban insurgents attacked a U.S. patrol. The insurgents then "occupied continued their attack from a compound" and an airstrike was called in, Toolan said.

"Unfortunately," Toolan's statement said, "the compound the insurgents purposefully occupied was later discovered to house innocent civilians."

Toolan said an investigation is continuing and that the families of the dead would be compensated "in accordance with Afghan culture." He didn't address whether any of the U.S. troops involved in the raid would face discipline if they were found to have violated ISAF guidelines on calling in airstrikes.

"I ask that the Afghan people continue to trust and assist their security forces so that together we can stop the senseless killing brought upon us by an enemy who wants to exploit the Afghan people through fear and violence," the statement concluded.

May was a particularly bloody month in Afghanistan. Dozens of Afghan government officials, police and coalition soldiers have died in suicide attacks, including several by bombers dressed in police and military uniforms.

There is no comprehensive count of civilians killed as a result of coalition actions since the Taliban's spring offensive began, but two incidents have drawn harsh Afghan government rebukes — the Saturday bombing in Helmand and a May 17 night raid in normally peaceful Takhar province that Afghan officials said killed four members of a single family.

The seriousness of that incident was compounded later that day when 2,000 demonstrators protesting the deaths converged on the offices of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, which coordinates ISAF aid programs with local officials. German troops guarding the office opened fire, killing 12 demonstrators.

ISAF said the four dead in the night raid were connected to a shadowy Uzbek guerrilla movement that often fights alongside the Taliban, but Karzai, along with local officials, said they were civilians and blamed ISAF for not coordinating the raid with local Afghan units.

Karzai issued a statement Saturday saying he'd asked his defense minister to halt night raids, because they too often result in civilian deaths. On March 10, a Karzai cousin was killed in a night raid on his home in Kandahar.

(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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