End Civilian Deaths, Karzai Tells Obama

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 6, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 5 -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday called on President-elect Barack Obama to end U.S. airstrikes that risk civilian casualties after coalition forces allegedly killed dozens of people at a wedding party in southern Afghanistan this week.

Karzai said that about 40 civilians were killed and 28 wounded Monday after coalition forces in Kandahar province bombarded the village of Shah Wali Kot during a clash with Taliban fighters in the region. Few details about the airstrike were available Wednesday, but Karzai said coalition troops called in the attack on a wedding party in the village as it traveled through the heart of Taliban territory.

Maj. John Redfield, a spokesman for the U.S. military, said U.S. and Afghan officials are investigating the claim. "We're aware of the claims of civilian casualties. In this case, it is uncertain from the facts what exactly happened," Redfield said. "If innocent people were killed in this operation, we apologize and express our condolences to the families and the people of Afghanistan."

Karzai has repeatedly called on NATO and U.S. forces this year to reduce their reliance on airstrikes after several high-profile bombings that resulted in scores of casualties, including a strike in August that U.N. and Afghan officials said killed at least 90 civilians. Under pressure to soothe the public, Karzai has in recent months publicly excoriated Western military forces for their reliance on airstrikes to counter the fierce insurgency that has taken root across the country.

"Our main difficulty is with civilian casualties. We should try to end civilian casualties," Karzai said.

With less than a year before Afghanistan holds presidential elections, Karzai has traveled at least a dozen times this year to villages bombarded by Western forces to offer condolences to survivors.

Two months ago, U.S. Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, ordered Western commanders to decrease their reliance on airstrikes in battles with insurgents. The directive was issued after the controversial airstrike on Aug. 22 in the western province of Herat.

The bombing in the small village of Azizabad revealed sharp divisions between Karzai's government, NATO command and the U.N. mission in Afghanistan. The United Nations and the Afghan government reported relatively high death tolls from the strike, while the U.S. military said five civilians had been killed. A reinvestigation of the incident by a top general from the U.S. Central Command later concluded that at least 30 civilians had been killed.

The alleged bombing in Shah Wali Kot occurred amid continuing clashes between Western forces and Taliban insurgents in Kandahar. NATO forces have recently focused on targeting Taliban supply lines in the province to cut insurgent routes into Helmand province to the west. Air assaults in Kandahar have been relatively limited in recent weeks. But Afghan and NATO officials confirmed that several civilians were killed after coalition forces called in an air assault during a clash with Taliban forces in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah in Helmand last month.

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company