President Hamid Karzai accused NATO and U.S.-led troops Saturday of carelessly killing scores of Afghan civilians and warned that the fight against resurgent Taliban militants could fail unless foreign forces show more restraint.
"Afghan life is not cheap and it should not be treated as such," Karzai said in an angry rebuke that drew a contrite acknowledgment from NATO that it must "do better."
In the past 10 days, more than 90 civilians have been killed by air strikes and artillery fire targeting Taliban insurgents, Karzai said. The mounting toll is sapping the authority of the Western-backed Afghan president, who has pleaded repeatedly with U.S. and NATO commanders to consult Afghan authorities during operations and show more restraint.
"Several times in the last year, the Afghan government tried to prevent civilian casualties, but our innocent people are becoming victims of careless operations of NATO and international forces," Karzai said at a news conference in his Kabul palace.
The casualties listed by Karzai bring the number of civilians killed in NATO or U.S.-led military operations this year to 211, according to an Associated Press tally of figures provided by Afghan and foreign officials and witnesses.
That tops the 172 civilians killed in militant attacks.
"If NATO forces want to be successful in their fight against terrorism and in bringing security to Afghanistan, they should coordinate with the Afghan government, no matter if the operation is small or big," Karzai said in a mixture of English and his native Pashto.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force responded contritely.
"President Karzai has a right to be disappointed and angry over the scale of civilian casualties in the last few days," ISAF spokesman Nick Lunt said. "We need to do better than we have been doing so far."
Foreign commanders insist they take great care to avoid civilian deaths while trying to beat back the Taliban so that Karzai's frail government can deliver services to the impoverished south and east.
Both U.S. and NATO forces, however, rely heavily on devastating air power. That helps minimize foreign troop casualties while inflicting heavy losses on militants — but also regularly harms innocents.
"Every single ISAF commander knows and says that we can do our job here if we have the consent of the people. But unlike the Taliban, we do not set out to cause civilian casualties, and that is a critical difference," Lunt said.
Earlier Saturday, Pakistan said a rocket hit a house in its territory, killing nine civilians during a battle in which NATO and U.S.-led forces killed some 60 suspected Taliban near Afghanistan's eastern border.
NATO said militants attacked Afghan and alliance troops late Friday in Paktika province. The alliance said it was the largest insurgent formation seen in the area since January, when U.S. forces said they had killed around 130 of 180 militants crossing from Pakistan. Pakistan denied any insurgents had cross the frontier.
Extra troops have been deployed on both sides of the mountainous frontier in an attempt to prevent militants who find sanctuary in Pakistan's wild tribal regions from mounting crossborder raids and sustaining the five-year-old war.
Although Karzai also denounced the Taliban for killing civilians, he directed most of his anger at foreign forces.
Police said Friday that a NATO air strike in the southern province of Helmand had killed 25 civilians, along with 20 militants who were firing on NATO and Afghan troops from a walled compound. NATO blamed the insurgents for hiding among civilians and defended the right of its troops to defend themselves.
Last week, 52 civilians died when artillery was fired into Chora, a town in Uruzgan province where NATO troops fought the Taliban for three days.
"You do not fight terrorists by firing a field gun 20 miles into a target," Karzai said. "That is definitely surely bound to cause civilian casualties.
"We want to cooperate with the international community. We are thankful for their help to Afghanistan," Karzai said. "But that does not mean that Afghan lives have no value."
Other fighting reported Saturday left some 20 militants and one coalition soldier dead. The soldier, who died in a firefight in the southern province of Helmand, was not identified.
Separately, the Estonian military said two of its soldiers clearing mines in Helmand were killed in a missile attack there — the first Estonian troops killed in Afghanistan since it joined the NATO force in 2003.
Police said militants killed six Afghan truckers hauling goods to a NATO base in Helmand and burned their vehicles.