Afghan President Hamid Karzai has declared that NATO aircraft can no longer fire on homes under any circumstances, an indication that the conflict over NATO airstrikes that kill civilians — including one that left 18 dead last week — remains unresolved.
Following an outcry over the attack in Logar Province, which killed children, teenagers and adults, NATO imposed new limits on airstrikes aimed at houses, but still wants to use them to defend troops on the ground.
Karzai and the coalition met last weekend to discuss airstrikes that have inadvertently killed Afghan civilians, a politically heated issue. However, the two sides offer different interpretations about what they agreed upon at the meeting.
The dispute highlights the sensitive relationship between the international force and Karzai. The Afghan president has denounced airstrikes that have caused civilian deaths on countless occasions and repeatedly says the war on terrorism should not be fought — and cannot be won — in Afghan villages.
“An agreement has been reached clearly with NATO that no bombardment of civilian homes for any reason is allowed,” Karzai said defiantly at a news conference at the presidential palace in Kabul on Tuesday.
“Even when they are under attack, they [coalition forces] cannot use an airplane to bomb Afghan homes,” he said.
To underscore his point, he repeated: “Even when they are under attack.”
Airstrikes on homes are a small part of international military operations, yet they have brewed intense resentment among Afghans, who feel they employ a disproportionate use of force and put civilians at risk in their own homes.
The international force operates under a UN mandate, and while Afghan forces partner with coalition troops on night raids, coalition commanders are the ones who authorize airstrikes.
Karzai said that at a meeting after the incident in Logar Province, he asked US Marine General John Allen, the top commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan: “Do you do this in the United States? There is police action every day in the United States … They don’t call in airplanes to bomb the place.”
After the tragedy, Allen flew to Logar to apologize. The international military coalition says airstrikes will be severely curtailed, designated now as a weapon of last resort to rescue soldiers.
On Tuesday, NATO said that Allen had issued an order telling US and coalition forces “that no aerial munitions be delivered against civilian dwellings.” However, the statement also contained this caveat: “As always, Afghan and coalition forces retain the inherent right to use aerial munitions in self-defense if no other options are available.”
At a Pentagon news conference on Tuesday, officials repeated the policy outlined by Allen, but denied it differed greatly from Karzai’s.
“We never remove from our troops in the field the right of self-defense,” Navy Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said. “We would never do that. And they still have the right to self-defense.”
US Marine Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, said the new rules will not mean a large change for troops overall.
Of the more than 1,300 cases in which air support was called in since January, 32 damaged civilian compounds and five civilian casualties were confirmed, the Pentagon said.
“So the point I’m making is most of our .... engagements are engagements with the enemy that are not in compounds,” he told Pentagon reporters in a video-conference from Afghanistan on Monday.