Tensions relating to Afghanistan again erupted at the highest political levels this week when Afghan President Hamid Karzai reacted angrily to civilian casualties in NATO strikes, warning the United States in particular that if they did not stop immediately his government would take “unilateral action” by way of response.
NATO officials admitted that their air strike last Friday against a residential compound in the restive Helmand province “inadvertently killed at least nine civilians.” Yet the actual number of civilians killed remained unclear due to varying official accounts, with some reports saying that 14 civilians, including up to 12 children and one woman, had been killed.
In a thinly veiled threat President Karzai said to media this week that the Afghan people could no longer tolerate these attacks on their homes, and “If you do not come to an understanding with us based on a negotiated solution... the Afghan government will be forced to take a unilateral action in this regard.”
Shortly after latest air strike a U.S. spokesman, Major General John Toolan, issued an official apology on behalf of top coalition commanders General David Petraeus and General David Rodriguez, adding that they would ensure that “we make amends with the families in accordance with Afghan culture.”
Nevertheless Mr. Karzai also alluded to his country's historical response to wars of occupation, warning NATO that it needed to “clearly demonstrate” its understanding that Afghanistan was “an ally, not an occupied country.” If it did not do so, he said, “then of course the Afghan people know how to deal with that.”
Following Mr. Karzai's remarks U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates sought to downplay the criticism and deflect attention to the increasing number of attacks by the Taliban against Western and Afghan forces.
In comments to media Mr. Gates said he did not know the specifics of the Helmand incident, but noted that “this is a continuing challenge we face in the war that we fight in Afghanistan,” and a joint Afghan-coalition investigation would “get to the bottom of the incident.”
He also emphasised that it was the Taliban that had no regard for civilian lives and was responsible for roughly 80 per cent of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan. “They are not even seeking to shield themselves in civilian communities... but are actively using improvised explosive devices to kill men, women and children,” he said.
The Secretary was quick, however, to address Mr. Karzai's demand that Afghanistan not be treated as an occupied territory. He said Mr. Karzai “and the Afghan people recognize that we are their ally, we are their friend, and we are trying to develop the capability to protect themselves so that the Afghan people can see an end to the problem.”
The latest flare-up came even as there is barely one month left to U.S. President Barack Obama's planned troop drawdown. Back home Mr. Obama has come under pressure to hasten the withdrawal of troops as members of the U.S. Congress have grown increasingly concerned about the massive adverse fiscal impact of the war.
When initially announcing the plan for withdrawal last December, the U.S. and its allies set 2014 as a deadline for the transfer all security responsibility to Afghanistan. However Mr. Obama even then qualified the plan with the caveat that the U.S. would “continue to advise and assist Afghanistan's security forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul.”