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Airstrike In Afghanistan Renews Concerns Over Civilian Casualties

Gen. Joseph Dunford, the new U.S. and International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, commander in Afghanistan, has only been in charge for a few days, and already he's been summoned to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office for what looks like a dressing down, according to a press release from the president's office.

Dunford was called in to discuss what was initially reported as an ISAF airstrike in Kunar province that killed 10 civilians late Tuesday night.

Civilian casualties — especially as a result of ISAF or U.S. airstrikes — have been one of the most toxic political issues in Afghanistan over the last few years. Karzai has long called for a ban on airstrikes, and responds to U.S. and ISAF strikes that kill civilians with especially sharp criticism.

Last summer, the issue came to a head after an airstrike on Taliban militants in eastern Logar province killed 18 civilians.

Karzai excoriated ISAF and called for a complete ban of airstrikes anywhere near residential areas – no matter what. Karzai met with the then-top U.S. and ISAF officials in Afghanistan — Gen. John Allen, ISAF commander, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker — after which Allen released new guidelines restricting the use of airstrikes.

In fact, the issue of civilian casualties has become so important that ISAF has issued apologies and made payments to families even when evidence suggested ISAF might not have been responsible.

Given the history of the issue, it's no surprise that when reports came out Wednesday that a NATO-ISAF air strike killed 10 civilians — reportedly mostly women and children — Karzai again issued a strong denouncement.

But, this latest case might be another where the realities on the ground are more complex than initially reported.

The primary source of Wednesday's news was the governor of Kunar province, a Karzai ally, who said that the overnight airstrike killed women and children, along with three or four insurgents. He said the strike hit a house where forces went to arrest Taliban commanders, and the civilians were killed in a neighboring house.

ISAF has not been able to offer any specific details of the operation, other than to say that Afghan and U.S. Special Operations Forces who operate outside the ISAF-NATO umbrella conducted the mission — so technically, no ISAF forces were involved in the operation.

According to Haji Sakhi, a parliamentarian from Kunar province who visited the scene as part of the Afghan team investigating the strike, there were no U.S. forces on the ground during the operation — the mission was conducted solely by elite forces from Afghanistan's National Directorate for Security, or NDS. Sakhi tells NPR that the Afghan NDS troops approached the house and called for the four Taliban commanders to come out. At that point, the Taliban opened fire, starting an hours-long gunfight.

Sakhi says that after an NDS officer was wounded, U.S. forces were called to provide air support.

"Before the airstrike, they also announced that civilians should leave the area," Sakhi says. "Lots of women and children left before the airstrike."

Neither U.S. forces nor Afghan investigators have completed their analysis of the operation. From what Sakhi has been able to determine, the strike killed four women and six children, all of whom were relatives of the four Taliban commanders who were also killed. He says they were a mix of Pakistani and Afghan citizens. (Another government official tells NPR that four Pakistani women were killed along with 10 militants.) This doesn't mean they weren't civilian casualties.

But if Sakhi's account is accurate — that they were relatives of the militants and didn't heed warnings to leave before the strike — then the situation is far from black and white.

Davood Moradian, a political analyst in Kabul, says Karzai has shown a pattern of latching onto narratives that cast ISAF and U.S. forces in the worst possible light.

"[Karzai is] using the question of the civilian casualty as political leverage with his American counterparts," Moradian says, "and also as a kind of populist measure to establish his nationalistic or Pashtun credibility" — referring to the predominant Afghan tribe of the east and south, who also make up most of the Taliban.

This doesn't mean U.S. forces are blameless, Moradian says, but Karzai selects facts that are convenient to his agenda of undermining support for U.S. and ISAF operations in Afghanistan.

NPR's Aimal Yaqubi and Sultan Faizy contributed to this report.

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