Afghanistan calls attack ‘unacceptable’

NATO strike Sunday kills 27 civilians; Outrage could hamper efforts

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post / February 23, 2010

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QALAT, Afghanistan - A NATO airstrike that killed at least 27 civilians and wounded dozens drew a sharp rebuke from the Afghan government yesterday and could intensify a political backlash against the military offensive in the country.

US Special Forces helicopters targeted a convoy of buses traveling along a main road near the border of Uruzgan and Daikundi provinces on Sunday. The pilots opened fire after intercepting Taliban radio conversations, according to a senior US military official. The nearest coalition forces were approximately 7 miles away at the time.

The Afghan cabinet yesterday condemned what it called an “unacceptable’’ attack and called on NATO troops to “coordinate with the Afghan security forces’’ before any operation.

A statement issued by the cabinet said 27 civilians were killed, including four women and a child, and 12 other people were injured. It was third time this month that civilians were killed in a coalition strike, and the deadliest attack on civilians in six months.

The airstrike was not part of the large military offensive in town of Marja in neighboring Helmand province, where about 15,000 US and Afghan troops were in their 10th day of fighting insurgents.

US 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 hotspot. That goal could be undermined by outrage over civilian casualties.

The top American commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, held a video conference yesterday morning with regional commanders across the country to remind commanders about the need for “the judicious application of fire,’’ the senior military official said.

“There was no danger to coalition forces,’’ the official said, adding that McChrystal was “apoplectic’’ after learning about the accident.

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 has taken such a step. The first followed a rocket strike that killed at least 12 people in a home in Marja.

“It’s not the first or the last time this kind of incident has taken place. It’s business as usual,’’ said Hashim Watanwal, a parliament member from Uruzgan. “It’s one of those unprovoked blind bombings.’’

Watanwal said he spoke with Interior Minister Hanif Atmar, who instructed him to “call the people you know to tell them to stay calm, to stay patient, that there should be no retaliatory violence,’’ he recalled.

The governor of Uruzgan, Asadullah Hamdam, cautioned in an interview that many of the details about the airstrike remained unknown. He sent a delegation to the site of the attack, in the village of Khud, to investigate. The Afghan security forces do not have a continual presence in the area and violence remains common there, he said.

Under McChrystal, the American military has made reducing civilian casualties a top priority, as the US strategy has shifted from killing insurgents to protecting the Afghan people. The military has issued rules restricting the use of air power, raids at night, and driving speeds, among other practices aimed at limiting the harm and humiliation that US operations cause civilians.

These changes came after a recognition that killing civilians inflamed the insurgency and turned villagers against NATO and Afghan troops.

“Civilian casualties in this society is something that we failed to understand. We just did not understand it,’’ one senior NATO official said last week. “We call it collateral damage; we call them compounds. Well, those are human beings and homes.’’

Also yesterday, a suicide bomber detonated explosives at a community meeting in eastern Afghanistan, killing 15 civilians including Mohammad Zaman Ghamsharik, a prominent tribal leader widely criticized for failing to prevent Osama bin Laden’s escape at Tora Bora after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The bombing occurred outside Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province. Police said a militant attacked tribal elders and government workers who were meeting with a few hundred Afghan refugees to discuss the distribution of land. Meanwhile, in the east of the country, NATO forces said they killed 14 insurgents in two clashes.

In the Marja offensive, fighting was less intense yesterday than in previous days. At the start of that offensive, a US rocket strike killed 12 civilians in a Marja house, near a site where insurgents were firing on American troops. Karzai expressed dismay about those killings and the US military temporarily suspended the use of the rocket system used before it was determined that it hit the intended target.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said yesterday that it had evacuated 28 sick and injured civilians from Marja to treatment facilities outside the area since the beginning of the offensive. Most required lifesaving medical treatment, it said.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.