An Afghan provincial governor said Monday that an apparent U.S. airstrike killed 10 Afghan civilians, and President Hamid Karzai -- who has harshly criticized such incidents -- ordered an immediate investigation.
If the reports are borne out, it would be the most serious instance of Western forces mistakenly killing Afghan civilians in months.
Civilian casualties at the hands of foreign forces have fallen off dramatically in the last six months, after Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, issued strict new rules of engagement limiting the use of force if noncombatants are thought to be in the area.
The alleged incident took place Sunday in a remote area of Kunar province, in Afghanistan’s northeast. Tribal elders in the district of Narang first reported the deaths, and the Associated Press quoted provincial police as saying eight of those killed were youths. Karzai’s office issued a brief statement condemning the deaths and promising an investigation, but it provided no details.
Civilian casualties have long been a sore point between the Karzai government and the Western military. McChrystal’s directive was issued after a surge in deaths and injuries among noncombatants.
The general told field commanders at the time that protecting civilian lives must be their top priority because in Afghanistan’s tightknit tribal society, such casualties inflame anger against foreign troops, thus undermining their mission and bringing new recruits to the insurgency.
Nearly all the foreign forces operating in Kunar province are American. U.S. military officials and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said they were checking on the reports of killings but had no immediate comment.
Western military officials reported a new outbreak of fighting in the country’s northwest, in Baghdis province, where they said about 60 militants, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, attacked coalition forces defending outposts belonging to the Afghan police and army.
Building up the Afghan security forces is a key part of the White House plan for an eventual drawdown of Western troops. But both the police and army are undertrained and understaffed, and the police in particular suffer heavy casualties because insurgents regard them as an easy target.
Police said Monday that two police officers were killed and three were missing after insurgents attacked a checkpoint Saturday night in another part of Baghdis. Insurgents have been making greater inroads into western provinces, including Baghdis. Most foreign forces are concentrated in Afghanistan’s south and east, where the insurgency is the strongest.