U.S. airstrike kills at least 27 Afghan civilians
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
QALAT, AFGHANISTAN -- A U.S. airstrike targeting a convoy of buses traveling in southern Afghanistan killed at least 27 civilians and wounded a dozen more in a bombing that could fuel a political backlash against the ongoing military offensive in Afghanistan.
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The Afghan cabinet condemned on Monday what it called the "unacceptable" attack and asked NATO troops to "coordinate with the Afghan security forces" before any operation. A statement issued by the cabinet said that 27 people, including four women and a child, died in the airstrike, while 12 others were injured.
The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, held a video conference Monday morning with task force and regional commanders across the country to remind commanders about the need for "the judicious application of fire," according to a senior military official.
"There was no danger to coalition forces" in the attack on the convoy, the official said. McChrystal, the official added, "was apoplectic."
The airstrike, along a main road near the border of the Uruzgan and Daikundi provinces, occurred Sunday when U.S. Special Forces piloting Little Bird helicopters fired on the convoy after intercepting Taliban radio conversations, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The nearest coalition forces were about seven miles away at the time.
The airstrike was not part of the large military offensive in neighboring Helmand province. But U.S. military officials view the Helmand operation as a chance to boost public support and momentum for their mission by demonstrating a decisive victory in one Taliban hot spot. That goal could be undermined by outrage over civilian casualties.
In Washington, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates declined to comment on the details of the airstrike, saying it was under investigation. But Gates said the incident had not shaken his faith in McChrystal, who has stiffened the criteria for ordering airstrikes.
"I have confidence in his judgment," Gates said. "General McChrystal is more on top of the importance of avoiding civilian casualties, and the strategic consequences of civilian casualties, than anybody."
McChrystal apologized to President Hamid Karzai after the airstrike, according to a statement from Karzai's office. It was the second time this month that McChrystal had taken such a step. The first followed a rocket strike that killed at least 12 people in a home in Marja.
"It's not the first or the last time this kind of incident has taken place. It's business as usual," said Hashim Watanwal, a parliament member from Uruzgan. "It's one of those unprovoked blind bombings."
Watanwal said the death toll in the bombing was 33, including three children. On Monday, he spoke with Interior Minister Hanif Atmar, who instructed him to "call the people you know to tell them to stay calm, to stay patient, that there should be no retaliatory violence," he said.
The governor of Uruzgan, Asadullah Hamdam, cautioned in an interview that many of the details about the airstrike remain unknown. He sent a delegation to the site of the attack, in the village of Khud, to investigate. The Afghan security forces do not have a persistent presence in the area and violence remains common there, he said.
Under McChrystal, the U.S. military has made reducing civilian casualties a top priority, as the American strategy has shifted from killing insurgents to protecting the Afghan people. The military has issued rules aimed at limiting the harm and humiliation that U.S. operations cause civilians, such as restricting the use of air power, night raids and driving speeds. These changes came after a recognition that killing civilians has inflamed the insurgency and turned villagers against NATO and Afghan troops.
"You kill the wrong people, you're suddenly making things a lot worse," a senior U.S. military official said. In terms of civilian casualties, "zero is perfect," the official said. "That's what we're after. We're going for zero."
Also Monday, a suicide bomber in Nangahar province, in eastern Afghanistan, killed 15 people. The dead included Mohammad Zaman Ghamsharik, a tribal leader who took part in the failed attempt to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in 2001, according to the Associated Press.
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