Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded Tuesday that NATO refrain from airstrikes on residential compounds, marking a sharp escalation in his long-running feud with Western commanders over the issue of civilian casualties.
The intensifying dispute came as Western military officials announced the death of a service member in a roadside bombing in eastern Afghanistan. Before the latest death, the independent website icasualties.org had counted the deaths of 54 NATO troops in May, making it the deadliest month this year.
Karzai’s demand followed a weekend airstrike in Helmand province that Afghan officials said killed 14 civilians, 11 of them children. The U.S. Marines’ commander in the province, Maj. Gen. John A. Toolan Jr., apologized for what the military said were nine civilian deaths in the bombardment, which was aimed at insurgents who had attacked an American patrol and killed a Marine.
Karzai said at a news conference in Kabul: “This should be the last attack on people’s houses. Such attacks will no longer be allowed.”
His call was viewed as mainly symbolic. Western military officials cited existing cooperation with Afghan authorities and pledged to continue consultations, but said privately that Karzai’s presidential authority does not include veto power over specific targeting decisions made in the heat of battle.
The Afghan leader has similarly demanded an end to night raids by Western special operations forces, which have resulted in the deaths or capture of thousands of insurgents, but those attacks have continued. In Brussels, Oana Lungescu, a spokeswoman for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said airstrikes would also go on as needed, the Associated Press reported.
Human rights groups and independent observers, such as the United Nations, agree that insurgents are responsible for the bulk of civilian deaths and injuries, many of which are caused by suicide bombings and other attacks carried out in public places. And Western military officials consistently say that the Taliban and other groups deliberately place civilians in harm’s way, whereas casualties caused by NATO forces are almost always accidental.
But most Afghans believe that foreign forces should be held to a far more stringent standard than the insurgents.