Despite a fiery "last warning" to the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai did not ban all air strikes on houses, the senior Australian general in Afghanistan said on Wednesday. Instead, Karzai will bring those concerns to a top-level meeting later this week.
Civilian casualties caused by international troops have long marred the relationship between the Afghan government and the coalition. After a strike that NATO says killed at least nine civilians over the weekend by mistake, Karzai said he will no longer permit NATO airstrikes on houses because they have caused too many civilian casualties. "From this moment, airstrikes on the houses of people are not allowed," Karzai said on Tuesday, adding that NATO risks being seen as an "occupying force" in the country.
"President Karzai has not emphatically banned the use of air," countered Australian Army Maj. Gen. Michael Krause via teleconference from Kabul. In a more tempered cast of Karzai’s comments, Krause said the Afghan president is going to “raise [the issue], as we understand, on Sunday with General [David] Petraeus.”
“We share the president's concern,” said Krause, who is the coalition’s deputy chief of staff for plans. “We have an aim of having zero [civilian casualties]. We do not deliberately target civilians. The same cannot be said about the Taliban. We investigate any instances, we admit when we're wrong, and we do pay compensation."
Last year was the deadliest year in Afghan civilian casualties in nearly a decade of war. The United Nations reports that militants were responsible for 75 percent of those deaths, largely through roadside bombs, suicide attacks, and targeted assassinations. The number of civilian deaths attributed to coalition forces actually dropped by a quarter since last year, and the number who died by air strikes declined by half since 2009. Even so, recent errant killings of civilians have prompted protests throughout the country and produced a blistering response from the Afghan leadership.
Tensions between Karzai and Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces, have escalated over this issue before. In March, Karzai rejected Petraeus's personal apology for the killing of nine children when two U.S. helicopters fired on what they thought were insurgents. The U.S. apology for the incident was not accepted until Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Afghanistan shortly thereafter on an unrelated trip.
“I think we need to go back to the reality that [most] of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan are caused by the Taliban who are clearly now even more than before targeting civilians—not even using them to shelter among but to just go after them with [bombs] and so on,” Gates said on Tuesday during a stop in Hawaii en route to Singapore.
“The Afghan people have put up with 30 years of war and I think President Karzai is reflecting the pain and suffering that the Afghan people have had to endure," Gates said. "But at the same time I think he also recognizes, and the Afghan people do, that we are their ally and we are their friend and we are trying to help them develop the capability to protect themselves so that the Afghan people can see an end to this kind of conflict.”
The country is in the throes of the Spring fighting season, and there has been no shortage of violence. Kandahar’s chief of police was killed in a suicide attack a few weeks ago. This past weekend, a Taliban militant infiltrated a guarded governor’s compound, killing several people in a suicide attack—including a highly-respected commander of the northern police zone and two NATO troops. Last year was the deadliest stretch of the war for American and NATO troops, and 2011—with 220 fatalities so far, including 157 U.S. deaths—is on pace to set a grim new record.
Krause claimed these “spectacular attacks” by militants have “grabbed a lot of headlines, but they've grabbed nothing of operational significance." He admitted his own positive outlook on the war's progress “might seem a little strange," given the recent spate of violence, but he claims the militants' suicide bombing tactics—including rigging an ambulance with explosives—are “not the cool or calm actions of a satisfied insurgency confident in their control over the population."
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