Karzai, NATO clash over latest Afghan strikes

Afghan President Hamid Karzai gestures after a joint press conference with unseen NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the Presidential palace in Kabul, May 24, 2011. SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Updated at 3 p.m. ET

KABUL - Angered by civilian casualties, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Tuesday he will no longer allow NATO airstrikes on houses, issuing his strongest statement yet against strikes that the military alliance says are key to its war on Taliban insurgents.

The president's remarks follow a recent strike that mistakenly killed a group of children and women in southern Helmand province. He said it would be the last.

"From this moment, airstrikes on the houses of people are not allowed," Karzai told reporters in Kabul.

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Later Tuesday, U.S. forces said three of its service members were killed in a bomb attack Saturday in eastern Afghanistan.

The military released the information Tuesday in a statement without providing further details. There was no explanation for the delay of several days in releasing the information. Often casualty reports are delayed in order to ensure that relatives are notified of the deaths beforehand.

A NATO spokeswoman said attacks on houses in Afghanistan are necessary and will continue in cooperation with Afghan security forces.

NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the alliance takes Karzai's concerns very seriously, and would continue to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. She said all such strikes are coordinated with Afghan forces and "they continue to be necessary."

She would not comment specifically on the recent raid in Helmand province.

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CBS News correspondent Mandy Clark reports that, while civilian casualties have long been the primary strain on NATO-Afghan relations, Karzai was visibly enraged by the air strike over the weekend which left the women and children dead.

The Afghan leader cautioned that NATO was meant to be an "ally" in Afghanistan, not an occupying force, and he warned that if the perceived balance of that relationship tipped in the opposition direction, "of course the Afghan people know how to deal with that."

Karzai suggested the Afghan defense forces might take unilateral military action to prevent any further air strikes on homes in the country.

Karzai has previously made strong statements against certain military tactics — such as night raids — only to back off from them later.

But if Karzai holds to what sounds like an order to international troops to abandon strikes, it could bring the Afghan government in direct conflict with its international allies.

"Coalition forces constantly strive to reduce the chance of civilian casualties and damage to structures, but when the insurgents use civilians as a shield and put our forces in a position where their only option is to use airstrikes, then they will take that option," Belinsky said.

It is unclear if Karzai has the power to order an end to such strikes. NATO and American forces are in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate. Negotiations between the United States and the Afghan government on the presence of U.S. forces have become contentious, with Karzai declaring that he will put strict controls on how U.S. troops conduct themselves.

"The Afghan people can no longer tolerate these attacks," Karzai told reporters at the presidential palace.

He noted that he has repeatedly told his international allies that civilian deaths from air strikes are unacceptable.

"If this is repeated, Afghanistan has a lot of ways of stopping it, but we don't want to go there. We want NATO to stop the raids on its own, without a declaration ... by the Afghan government, because we want to continue to cooperate," he said.

Karzai said that NATO forces risk being seen as an "occupying force," using the same phrase that Taliban insurgents use to describe the international coalition.

"They must treat Afghanistan as a sovereign nation," Karzai said.

A spokesman for the NATO military coalition led by U.S. Gen. David Petraeus said that the alliance is as concerned as Karzai about being perceived as occupiers and is working to transfer as much authority to Afghans as it can.

"Gen. Petraeus has repeatedly noted that every liberation force has to be very conscious that it can, over time, become seen as an occupation force," Rear Adm. Vic Beck said in a statement.

"We are in agreement with President Karzai on the importance of constantly examining our actions in light of that reality — and we are doing just that," Beck said. He noted that NATO has increased Afghan leadership in night raids and that Petraeus has repeatedly emphasized to troops the importance of doing everything possible to reduce civilian casualties.

At least nine civilians were killed in Saturday's air strike in Helmand province, according to NATO. Afghan officials have said 14 were killed, including at least 10 children and two women.

NATO officials have apologized for the strike on two houses in Nawzad district, saying their troops thought the targeted compound housed only insurgents when they ordered the strike.

Southwest regional commander U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. John Toolan said that NATO launched the airstrike after an insurgent attack on a coalition patrol in the district killed a Marine. Five insurgents occupied a compound and continued to attack coalition troops, who called in an airstrike "to neutralize the threat," Toolan said.

The troops later discovered civilians inside the house.

Karzai has vacillated between calling for an end to airstrikes and night raids and softer rebukes of NATO forces, telling them to exercise more caution. NATO has managed to significantly reduce civilian casualties from its operations in recent years.

Meanwhile, civilians deaths from insurgent attacks have spiked.

At least 2,777 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2010, a 15 percent increase over the prior year, according to a United Nations report. The insurgency was blamed for most of those deaths, while civilian deaths attributed to NATO troops declined 21 percent.

The fighting has also continued to take the lives of international and Afghan forces. In the latest death Tuesday, a NATO service member was killed in a bomb attack in eastern Afghanistan, according to a statement from NATO forces. The military alliance did not provide further details.

Including Tuesday's bombing, 52 NATO service members have been killed in May, including at least 28 Americans.

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