By Joshua Partlow and Habib Zahori
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 21, 2011; A07
KABUL - Afghan government officials alleged Sunday that a U.S. military operation in the remote mountains of northeastern Afghanistan killed 65 innocent people, including 22 women and more than 30 children, the most serious allegation of civilian casualties in months.
The governor of Konar province, Fazlullah Wahidi, said that NATO forces launched the operation four days ago in the Ghaziabad district, a desolate area near the province's northern border with Pakistan, where a lethal mix of insurgent groups operate.
"According to locals in the area, American helicopters have been constantly bombing the village and have caused tremendous civilian casualties," Wahidi said in an interview. He said he received his information from residents "trapped" in the village.
American commanders went into crisis mode Sunday, launching an investigation into the incident to find out what happened and prevent the episode from damaging relations with the Afghan government.
"We take all those allegations seriously, and we'll get to the bottom of them as best we possibly can," said a senior U.S. military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"It's just the challenging situation that goes on with these type of incidents: an isolated area, a tough area, tough terrain."
The official said that those killed, as in most such incidents, were wearing civilian clothes. "But civilians involved in hostilities, I think that was the majority of them."
A NATO statement said that video and information from the coalition showed that 36 insurgents, who were carrying weapons, were killed. The U.S. troops involved responded to insurgent activity and fired with aircraft and an unmanned Predator drone, the senior military official said.
"It's up in the mountains and it's not around villages, so we don't think it's very likely" they were civilians, the official said.
Such incidents in the past have been a source of major tension between the Afghan government and coalition troops. The loss of civilian life has regularly prompted a stern response from President Hamid Karzai, who on Sunday strongly condemned the killings.
Karzai, who put the death toll at 50 civilians, said in a statement that it is his responsibility to protect Afghans' lives and property and that he "will take any steps necessary to prevent and stop civilian casualties in his country."
Konar province has proved to be one of the most treacherous parts of Afghanistan for U.S. troops. The forested mountains and river valleys offer endless hiding places for insurgents.
Since the 101st Airborne Division arrived in eastern Afghanistan in June, its troops have killed about 2,500 people, compared with about 1,500 in the same period the previous year, said Maj. Gen. John Campbell, the top commander in eastern Afghanistan.
Konar, in particular, has been extremely violent.
"That's been our most kinetic area," Campbell said in an interview this month. "We've dropped over 900 bombs since we've been here, and probably greater than 50 percent has been up there. We've fired over 30,000 artillery rounds, mortar rounds, and much of it has been up there."
The residents, long accustomed to living in essentially ungoverned territory, have fought to keep foreign forces out.
"They're in extreme isolation," Brig. Gen. Stephen Townsend, a senior Army official in eastern Afghanistan, said of parts of Konar. "They just don't want us there."
The U.S. military has withdrawn from some areas, such as the Korengal valley, because years of bloody battle failed to yield results. Insurgents from al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and Lashkar-i-Taiba have been known to operate in Konar.
"There's a toxic stew of bad guys up there," Townsend said. "We don't want a sanctuary to emerge for Taliban and terrorists such as Lashkar-i-Taiba who may harbor transnational goals."