By Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 11, 2011; A10
KABUL - The accidental killing of a cousin of President Hamid Karzai by a U.S. Special Forces team became on Thursday the latest in a string of high-profile civilian casualties that have further soured the relationship between the Afghan leader and his American benefactors.
The fatal shooting late Wednesday of Yaar Mohammad Khan, 65, a second cousin of the president, in a night raid in southern Afghanistan has angered Karzai, who has become increasingly critical of the way NATO is prosecuting the war.
"The president sees this as another lamentable case of loss of life," said Waheed Omer, a spokesman for the president. "This was the result of an irresponsible and unnecessary night raid. His message is that they have to stop these irresponsible night raids that kill innocent Afghans."
Civilian deaths caused by NATO operations have declined over the past year, even as the tempo of the war has dramatically increased and thousands of additional U.S. troops have poured into Afghanistan, according to military and U.N. statistics.
Still, U.S. military officials say the prominent nature of several recent incidents could severely undermine the counterinsurgency effort here as the war continues in its 10th year.
The incident comes a little more than a week after NATO pilots in eastern Afghanistan mistakenly killed nine boys collecting firewood. The airstrike prompted an unusually irate statement from Karzai and a rare personal apology from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops here. It also provoked demonstrations by Afghans angry over what they perceive as disregard among foreigners for Afghan lives.
"Although perception is always hard to overcome, here it is a different challenge because of illiteracy and lack of trust of foreigners," a U.S. military official said Thursday night, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a politically sensitive issue.
Since late 2009, NATO has taken several steps to reduce civilian casualties, including placing more restrictions on when troops can fire their weapons. The effort led to a 26 percent drop last year in the number of civilians killed by NATO or Afghan government forces, according to a U.N. report issued Wednesday.
By contrast, the number of civilians killed by the Taliban and its allies jumped 28 percent. The United Nations estimates that insurgents were responsible for three-quarters of the 2,777 civilians killed during fighting in Afghanistan last year. Overall, civilian deaths were up 15 percent in 2010, largely because of Taliban suicide bombings, roadside explosions and assassinations.
Khan's death late Wednesday garnered immediate attention here, with the Taliban issuing a statement noting that not even Karzai's family is spared the "evil" of NATO forces.
Relatives said U.S. Special Forces troops were apparently attempting to take Khan's son into custody in the family's home in the Dand district of Kandahar province, suspecting he was a Taliban fighter. For reasons that have not been fully explained, the elder Khan was fatally shot.
"The target was someone else, but, unfortunately, my poor cousin became the victim," said Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half-brother.
NATO officials said a series of night raids carried out by Special Forces troops in recent months have been remarkably successful, resulting in the death or detention of several Taliban leaders. Karzai has long criticized the raids, saying they often cause civilian casualties.
A NATO spokesman said the command was aware of the reports by Afghan officials but has not identified the man killed in the raid.
Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said the NATO command in Afghanistan has done a commendable job at reducing civilian casualties.
NATO and its Afghan allies were responsible for 440 civilian deaths last year, or 16 percent of the total, according to the U.N. report. In 2009, 596 civilians died as a result of NATO and Afghan government action.
But NATO's efforts could have a negligible effect if they do not sway public perception.
"What you're talking about is information operations, and the Taliban has always outcompeted us in that arena," Dressler said.
Agha Lalai Dastagiri, deputy chairman of the provincial council in Kandahar, said Khan had a long-running dispute with another relative. He suggested that the relative could have provided a faulty tip to NATO troops.
Khan's son was detained but later released, said Afghan officials in Kandahar.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan on Thursday, the police chief of a northern province was killed in a suicide bombing, Afghan and Western officials said.
Kunduz police chief Abdur Rahman Sayed Khali died about 8 p.m. in a suicide attack by a man on a motorcycle.
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.