U.S. airstrike kills at least 27 Afghan civilians

By Joshua Partlow and Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

QALAT, AFGHANISTAN -- A U.S. airstrike targeting a convoy of buses traveling in southern Afghanistan killed at least 27 civilians and wounded a dozen more in a bombing that could fuel a political backlash against the ongoing military offensive in Afghanistan.

The Afghan cabinet condemned on Monday what it called the "unacceptable" attack and asked NATO troops to "coordinate with the Afghan security forces" before any operation. A statement issued by the cabinet said that 27 people, including four women and a child, died in the airstrike, while 12 others were injured.

The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, held a video conference Monday morning with task force and regional commanders across the country to remind commanders about the need for "the judicious application of fire," according to a senior military official. "There was no danger to coalition forces" in the attack on the convoy, the official said. McChrystal, the official added, "was apoplectic."

The airstrike, along a main road near the border of the Uruzgan and Daikundi provinces, occurred Sunday when U.S. Special Forces piloting Little Bird helicopters fired on the convoy after intercepting Taliban radio conversations, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The nearest coalition forces were about seven miles away at the time.

The airstrike was not part of the large military offensive in neighboring Helmand province. But U.S. military officials view the Helmand operation as a chance to boost public support and momentum for their mission by demonstrating a decisive victory in one Taliban hot spot. That goal could be undermined by outrage over civilian casualties.

McChrystal apologized to President Hamid Karzai after the airstrike, according to a statement from Karzai's office. It was the second time this month that McChrystal had taken such a step. The first followed a rocket strike that killed at least 12 people in a home in Marja.

Under McChrystal, the U.S. military has made reducing civilian casualties a top priority, as the American strategy has shifted from killing insurgents to protecting the Afghan people. The military has issued rules aimed at limiting the harm and humiliation that U.S. operations cause civilians. These changes came after a recognition that killing civilians has inflamed the insurgency and turned villagers against NATO and Afghan troops.

"You kill the wrong people, you're suddenly making things a lot worse," a senior U.S. military official said.

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Qalat and staff writer Craig Whitlock in Washington contributed to this report.

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