By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 3, 2011; A06
KABUL - A NATO airstrike that Afghan officials said Wednesday killed nine children collecting firewood in eastern Afghanistan the day before became the latest irritant in the tense relationship between President Hamid Karzai and the international force in the country.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top NATO commander here, issued an apology for an error that military officials attributed to faulty communication as an air weapons team responded to an attack on a NATO base Tuesday in Konar province.
"We are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologize to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and most importantly, the surviving family members of those killed by our actions," Petraeus said in an unusually contrite written statement. "These deaths should have never happened and I will personally apologize to President Karzai."
The strike increased the already high tension between Karzai and NATO commanders, who came under scrutiny late last month because of another case in which Afghan officials alleged that dozens of civilians were killed in a U.S. military operation, also in Konar province.
NATO officials have said they are investigating the earlier case but have resisted the account of Afghan officials, who said 65 civilians were killed.
"Poor and innocent civilians . . . have continued on [a] daily basis to suffer in the unjustifiable operations and bombings carried out by the NATO," Karzai's office said in a statement released before Petraeus's apology.
The statement said that as long as civilians are killed by NATO strikes, "fighting terrorism in Afghan villages can have no success."
NATO officials said coalition forces launched the strike in response to a rocket attack on Forward Operating Base Blessing, in Konar's Darah-Ye Pech district. Troops used artillery and opened fire from aircraft, targeting the area from where the attack on the base had originated, officials said.
"Regrettably there appears to have been an error in the hand-off between identifying the location of the insurgents and the attack helicopters that carried out subsequent operations," the NATO statement said.
Petraeus said the error was "particularly distressing given the recent direction I gave to commanders to review our tactical directive that is intended to reduce civilian casualties to the absolute minimum."
NATO said it will investigate the incident and will take disciplinary action against those responsible, if necessary. Petraeus said he had ordered all helicopter attack crews and NATO commanders "to be re-briefed on the tactical directive, reinforcing the need to be sure we protect the lives of innocent Afghans as we pursue a ruthless enemy."
Fazlullah Wahidi, the governor of Konar, said the rockets were fired around 11 a.m. About an hour later, NATO helicopters were hovering around Monogai district, where the rockets' suspected launch site is located.
"The people in Monogai are poor, and they send their children to the woods to collect firewood," he said.
The issue of civilian casualties, particularly those resulting from NATO airstrikes, has long been a sore point between the Afghan government and the international force. Such killings dropped between June 2009 and June 2010, when Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander at the time, issued guidance on curbing the use of airstrikes and rewarded what he termed "courageous restraint" on the battlefield.
His stance made him deeply popular among Afghan officials. In contrast, recent reported cases of civilian casualties have soured the relationship between Karzai and Petraeus, McChrystal's successor.
In revising self-defense rules for troops, Petraeus has had to walk a fine line. Civilian casualties undermine NATO's counterinsurgency mission here by angering Afghan civilians and bolstering the Taliban's attempt to portray foreign troops as ruthless invaders.
But setting rules that are too restrictive, as some troops argued McChrystal's were, has the potential to put U.S. forces in greater danger and generate outrage at home.
Wednesday's presidential statement was among the sharpest Karzai's office has issued in recent months.
"The President asked whether bombing an area where poor children were collecting firewood for winter was the way to succeed against terrorism and secure Afghanistan," the statement said.
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.