Civilian deaths stir issue

Azam Ahmed / New York Times News Service /

Published Apr 8, 2013 at 05:00AM

KABUL, Afghanistan — A U.S. military airstrike in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border killed as many as 18 people, including at least one senior Taliban commander but also women and children, raising the thorny issue of civilian casualties for the third time in roughly a week.

The attack occurred Saturday during a joint mission of Afghan and U.S. special operations forces targeting a high profile Taliban commander in Kunar province, Afghan officials said. After several hours of fierce fighting with insurgents in the area, the U.S. forces called in an airstrike to level the home of the commander, Ali Khan, officials said.

In addition to killing Khan and several other Taliban fighters, as many as 10 children were killed in the strike and at least five women were wounded, said Abdul Zahir Safi, the governor of Shigal district, where the attack occurred. Afghan officials believed they were the relatives and children of the Taliban commander.

Civilian casualties have long been a sticking point between President Hamid Karzai and his Western allies. Harsh criticism by Karzai led to stronger rules on airstrike use by U.S. forces last year, effectively halting air attacks on population centers and homes.

Civilian casualties at the hands of foreign forces have dropped dramatically since then, though such strikes bring intense anger among the Afghan population when they happen.

On the Afghan side, Karzai basically prohibited his own armed forces from requesting supporting NATO airstrikes after an incident in the same district of Kunar, Shigal, in February 2012 killed 10 civilians.

On Sunday, Karzai’s office issued a statement criticizing the deaths in the Kunar airstrikes, and called for an investigation into civilians deaths there.