5 dead after clash between U.S. and Afghan troops

Rod Nordland / New York Times News Service /

KABUL, Afghanistan — Only two days after joint operations between U.S. and Afghan forces were said to be returning to normal, five people — two Americans and three Afghans — were killed when a pitched battle broke out between soldiers of the two sides, U.S. and Afghan officials said Sunday.

Afghan officials said that the clash Saturday was a misunderstanding and that the Americans apparently attacked an Afghan National Army unit in error. A top coalition officer said the Americans were attacked first in what might possibly have been an insurgent attack. Nonetheless, he expressed regret for what ensued.

An initial statement from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, commonly referred to as ISAF, on Sunday described the episode as “a suspected insider attack,” which killed a foreign soldier and a civilian contractor. If so, that would bring to 53 the number of coalition forces killed in the so-called insider attacks this year.

The episode was another in a series of setbacks this year, and particularly in the last month, in relations between the U.S. and Afghan militaries. It comes at a delicate moment, when all of the U.S. surge reinforcements have only recently left the country, and NATO has been trying to transfer ever greater responsibility to a growing Afghan military.

Shahidullah Shahid, the spokesman for the governor in Wardak province where the fighting occurred, said the deaths came “after a clash ensued between two sides following a misunderstanding.”

An Afghan official, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to release details, said that a mortar shell had landed amid the U.S. unit, killing a soldier and a civilian contractor and wounding several others. The Americans thought it came from a nearby Afghan National Army checkpoint on a hill overhead and attacked it with small arms and rockets, killing three and wounding three of the seven soldiers there, the official said.

The Wardak provincial police chief, Abdul Qayoum Baqizoi, said the fight broke out when an Afghan soldier among seven soldiers at the checkpoint opened fire on the Americans; in the ensuing gun battle, three Afghan soldiers were killed, including the one who fired first.

“We still don’t have a clear picture of what happened,” Baqizoi said.

He quoted the lone Afghan soldier who was unhurt as saying, “‘I heard some noise and verbal argument and suddenly heard the shooting and then one of the coalition soldiers threw a hand grenade, so I fled from the check post and hid myself behind our Humvee.’”