KABUL — The new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan said Sunday he would comply with an intended order by President Hamid Karzai that prohibits Afghan forces from calling in NATO airstrikes on residential areas.
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., on the job here a week, said the international coalition would find “other ways” to support Afghan ground forces, which frequently depend on NATO air power in their operations against Taliban insurgents.
Karzai announced his planned decree on Saturday after 10 civilians, including five women and four children, died in a NATO airstrike Tuesday night reportedly called in by Afghan intelligence operatives in a remote village in eastern Kunar province. The air attack on two homes also killed three militant commanders, Afghan officials said.
Karzai repeatedly has lashed out at the coalition over civilian casualties, while NATO says it does its best to limit them. Dunford said Sunday that international forces have made “extraordinary progress in mitigating the risk to civilians.”
The 57-year-old four-star general, who took command from fellow Marine Gen. John Allen on Feb. 10, appeared easygoing but frank in an informal gathering he convened Sunday morning to introduce himself to international and local media. As head of the International Security Assistance Force, as the coalition is officially known, he is tasked with concluding Western forces’ combat mission here by the end of 2014.
One of his challenges is dealing with the mercurial and combative Karzai, who some U.S. officials perceive as ungrateful for the massive support his country has received — mainly from the United States — during the 11-year war, in which 2,177 U.S. troops have died.
NATO has trained and equipped some 350,000 Afghan security forces in preparation for their assuming responsibility for their nation’s defense against a resilient and resourceful Taliban insurgency.
In a speech Saturday at a Kabul military academy, Karzai said he intended to issue an order on Sunday “stating that under no conditions can Afghan forces request foreign airstrikes on Afghan homes or Afghan villages during operations.”
“Our forces ask for air support from foreigners, and children get killed in an airstrike,” the Afghan leader added.
Dunford said he respected Afghan sovereignty and would meet with the country’s army chief and defense minister in coming days to “work through the details” of the new airstrike arrangement Karzai wants.
“We can continue to support the Afghan National Security Forces and meet the president’s intent,” Dunford said.
“There are other ways to support our Afghan partners other than air ordnance,” he added, without elaboration.
Last week, Dunford met with Karzai to express condolences for the 10 civilians killed Tuesday and other casualties, and NATO launched an investigation.
Because Afghanistan has only an incipient air force, NATO must fill the void to protect its own troops and the Afghans.
A former Afghan general, Amrullah Aman, reacted with surprise to Karzai’s remarks in an interview Saturday with the Associated Press.
“In a country like Afghanistan, where you don’t have heavy artillery and you don’t have air forces to support soldiers on the ground, how will it be possible to defeat an enemy that knows the area well and can hide anywhere?” Aman said. “There must be air support to help all those ground forces on the battlefield.”
Many analysts continue to express doubt about the capacity of the country’s desertion-prone national police and military forces to hold their own against the Taliban after NATO ends its combat mission.
As they step up training Afghan forces to assume responsibility for the country’s defense, Western troops are concurrently accelerating their withdrawal, in part at Karzai’s insistence. President Obama has ordered half the remaining 66,000 U.S. troops here to depart within a year.
Last June, after a NATO air attack killed 18 civilians, Allen restricted the use of strikes against suspected militants “within civilian dwellings.”