U.S. missile malfunctioned during airstrike, wounding at least five civilians in Kabul, officials say

A malfunctioning missile during a U.S. airstrike caused multiple civilian casualties Wednesday during a counterattack near the international airport in Kabul, according to NATO officials in Afghanistan.

At least five civilians were injured during an airstrike on insurgents who had fired rockets and mortar shells and detonated suicide vests shortly after Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg had arrived in the Afghan capital for a visit, Afghan officials said.

The U.S.-led NATO force in Afghanistan said in a statement that an investigation of the errant missile was underway and that it “deeply regrets the harm to noncombatants.”

“We take every precaution to avoid civilian casualties, even as the enemies of Afghanistan continue to operate in locations that deliberately put civilians at very high risk,” the statement said. It did not say how many civilians were killed or injured.

Najib Danish, spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, said one of the U.S.-launched missiles stuck a home near Hamid Karzai International Airport, wounding five people. He said one of the five was a woman who was "not in a good health condition."

Both the Taliban and Islamic State claimed responsibility for the earlier attack on the airport. Mattis and Stoltenberg had already left the airport when the attack occurred, and no one was injured.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani later said at a news conference with Mattis and Stoltenberg that Afghan special forces troops brought the insurgents’ attack under control.

Mattis called the attack "a crime" during the news conference, which was broadcast on local TV.

Mattis and Stoltenberg pledged continued support for Afghanistan and vowed to ensure the country "doesn't again become a safe haven for international terrorists."

Stoltenberg said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is aware of "the cost of staying in Afghanistan, but the cost of leaving would be even higher."

He said that "if NATO forces leave too soon, there is a risk that Afghanistan may return to a state of chaos and once again become a safe haven for international terrorism."

Stoltenberg also said NATO was committed to funding the Afghan security forces until at least 2020 and would continue to provide almost $1 billion each year.

It was Mattis’ first visit to Afghanistan since President Trump outlined a new U.S. strategy for the war last month. Mattis now has the authority to send as many as 4,000 more troops to the battlefield.

Those troops are beginning to arrive as U.S. warplanes have stepped up operations against a resurgent Taliban and other militant groups. U.S. aircraft have dropped more than twice as many bombs and missiles in Afghanistan so far this year compared with the same time a year ago, according to Air Force statistics.

Mattis said Washington supports a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, a sign of the stalemate after nearly 16 years of war.

"The sooner the Taliban recognizes they cannot win with bombs, the sooner the killing will end," he said.

The Associated Press was used in compiling this report.

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UPDATES:

1:15 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times staff reporting.

5:05 a.m.: This article was updated with statements from a joint news conference by Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

This story was originally published at 4:10 a.m.

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