KABUL — President Hamid Karzai announced Saturday he intends to ban Afghan ground forces from calling in NATO airstrikes on residential areas — even though his country’s fighters have had to rely in the past on such air power in operations against Taliban militants.
“Our forces ask for air support from foreigners, and children get killed in an airstrike,” Karzai said in a speech at a military academy here, reinforcing his often truculent posture toward the U.S.-backed international coalition that has long supported his government.
Ten civilians, including five women and four children, died in a NATO airstrike Tuesday night in a remote village in eastern Kunar province that also killed three militant commanders, one of them linked to al-Qaeda, Afghan officials said.
NATO launched an investigation, and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the new commander of U.S. and international forces here, met with Karzai to express condolences for civilian casualties, according to statements earlier this week from both the presidential palace and the alliance.
The Afghan leader said he would issue a decree Sunday “stating that under no conditions can Afghan forces request foreign airstrikes on Afghan homes or Afghan villages during operations.”
Because Afghanistan has only an incipient air force, NATO must fill the void to protect its own troops and the Afghans’ — even while fending off Karzai’s repeated accusations that it is somehow indifferent to civilian deaths.
A former Afghan general, Amrullah Aman, reacted with surprise to Karzai’s remarks in an interview with the Associated Press.
“In a country like Afghanistan, where you don’t have heavy artillery and you don’t have air forces to support soldiers on the ground, how will it be possible to defeat an enemy that knows the area well and can hide anywhere?” Aman said. “There must be air support to help all those ground forces on the battlefield.”
NATO declined to comment.
Many analysts continue to express doubt about the capacity of the country’s desertion-prone national police and military forces to hold their own against the Taliban after NATO ends its combat mission at the end of 2014.
As they step up training Afghan forces to assume responsibility for the country’s defense, Western troops are concurrently accelerating their withdrawal, in part at Karzai’s insistence. President Obama has ordered half the remaining 66,000 U.S. troops here to depart within a year.
Last June, after a NATO air attack killed 18 civilians, Dunford’s predecessor, Gen. John Allen, restricted the use of strikes against suspected militants “within civilian dwellings.”
The circumstances of the latest attack are not entirely known, at least not publicly, but Afghan officials said it occurred during a combined American-Afghan raid and two homes were hit by aerial munitions.
In his speech, Karzai said Dunford told him the strikes were called in by the Afghan spy agency, the National Directorate of Security.
“If this is true, it is very regrettable and it is very shameful. How could they ask foreigners to send planes and bomb our own houses?” the Afghan president said.