By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 23, 2008
KANDAHAR AIR BASE, Afghanistan, Oct. 22 -- Nine Afghan soldiers were killed and four others injured by a U.S. airstrike on an Afghan army checkpoint Wednesday in an apparent friendly-fire incident in eastern Afghanistan, according to Afghan and U.S. military officials.
The pre-dawn airstrike occurred after a convoy of coalition troops came under fire as they returned to their base in Khost province, according to a statement released by the U.S. military. Coalition soldiers called for air support after exchanging fire with Afghan troops near an Afghan army checkpoint in the Sayed Kheil area in what military officials said could be "a case of mistaken identity on both sides."
U.S. military officials did not release the nationalities of the coalition soldiers involved in the incident. But the majority of coalition forces based in eastern Afghanistan are U.S. soldiers.
Arsallah Jamal, governor of Khost province, said coalition and Afghan troops had been engaged in operations in the area for about 10 days before the strike occurred. Jamal said the army checkpoint was relatively new but was well-known and on a main road. "They knew it was there. They made a mistake," Jamal said.
Lt. Muhammed Gul, a spokesman for the Afghan army division based in Paktia province, said Afghan National Army troops were in the midst of an operation focused on securing a stretch of highway between Khost and Paktia to the west. Afghan soldiers had recently set up the checkpoint as part of the operation, Gul said. He said the Afghan Defense Ministry and U.S. military officials are investigating the incident.
The apparent mistaken strike comes after a series of errant air operations that have stirred controversy in Afghanistan in recent months. On Monday, NATO officials said a joint investigation with the Defense Ministry determined that an airstrike on a Taliban compound in southern Helmand province last week killed a number of civilians, including several women and children. NATO officials said coalition troops called for air support after they came under heavy fire near the town of Nad Ali. NATO officials did not release the number of civilians killed, but Afghan government officials said shortly after the Oct. 16 airstrike that they believed at least 18 civilians were killed.
NATO and U.S. forces have recently been under pressure from the government of President Hamid Karzai to curtail the use of airstrikes during their operations. Karzai called for a review of foreign military conduct and responsibilities in his country after United Nations and Afghan officials concluded that an Aug. 22 strike in the western town of Azizabad killed as many as 90 civilians.
U.S. military officials initially denied those reports, saying their investigation found that five civilians and about 30 Taliban insurgents were killed. A second investigation ordered by U.S. Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, concluded that at least 30 civilians, including women and children, were killed in the Azizabad airstrike.
McKiernan issued orders last month calling on the roughly 42,000 NATO soldiers under his command to reduce their reliance on air support and coordinate more closely with Afghan security forces during operations. McKiernan, who met last month with tribal elders and the families of those killed in Azizabad, said NATO forces have historically gone to great lengths to minimize civilian casualties. But he acknowledged that the recent spate of errant strikes has undercut NATO's credibility with the Afghan public.
"In this campaign, the issue of civilian casualties -- no matter how they are caused and who causes them -- is a very important part of the perception of security in Afghanistan," McKiernan said.
Airstrikes have, nonetheless, proved to be a critical weapon in a conflict in which foreign troop numbers have remained relatively low. U.S. officials have said that precision airstrikes on a number of leading Taliban and al-Qaeda figures have produced important tactical victories.
On Wednesday, U.S. military officials said a strike in Helmand province killed a top Taliban commander and injured two other insurgents. The officials said in a written statement that the air attack hit the vehicle of Mullah Ghafar after coalition troops sighted him traveling on a highway in the troubled southern province.
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.