NATO forces in Afghanistan are facing new pressure on the “hearts and minds” front after they admitted Sunday to killing five civilians in a February assault and as Afghan President Hamid Karzai appeared to publicly undermine Western efforts here.
Currently on a visit with top US commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal to Kandahar, where NATO is planning a major summer offensive against the Taliban, Mr. Karzai promised local leaders on Sunday that “there won’t be an operation unless you are happy about it.”
On Monday, he canceled a planned trip to a frontline NATO base nearby – a move that would hurt morale among local government workers and residents, US officials said.
“Simply by not showing up today was a victory for the Taliban,” said a frustrated senior US official. “All he had to do was pick up the phone and say, ‘I’m sorry’ and the Afghans will forgive him, he’s good to go, he’s a hero still. Otherwise they will keep a grudge for years and years and years.”
Buildings had been decorated with fresh flowers and portraits of the president.
Karzai lashes out
Before the trip south, Karzai had issued several criticisms of the international community’s role in Afghanistan. According to The New York Times, during a meeting with lawmakers in Kabul on Saturday, he reportedly warned that if foreign powers continued pressuring him, “I swear that I am going to join the Taliban.”
Last Thursday Karzai accused the international community of interfering in last August’s elections, blaming them for the widespread fraud that tarnished his reelection. “[Foreigners] want parliament to be weakened and battered, and for me to be an ineffective president, and for parliament to be ineffective,” he said.
The accusation prompted the US to seek clarification, through a phone call between Karzai and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It came three days after President Barack Obama’s first visit to Afghanistan, during which he asked the Afghan leader to address corruption in his administration.
The US is pushing for improved governance in Afghanistan as a way to win the support of the population.
NATO admits civilian deaths
Those efforts faced a serious setback this week after the organization admitted that foreign troops had indeed killed five civilians, including three women, in a Feb. 12 raid in the eastern town of Gardez. It had originally claimed the women were found dead – bound and gagged – when the soldiers arrived.
NATO’s about-face came as the Times of London reported that the soldiers had tried to cover up the deaths by removing their bullets from victims’ bodies. It cited an Afghan investigation, which it said based its findings on witness accounts, photographs, and the missing bullets.
Civilian casualties are a primary source of tension between foreign troops and Afghans.
"The force went to the compound based on reliable information in search of a Taliban insurgent and believed that the two men posed a threat to their personal safety,” spokesman Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay said in a statement.
"We now understand that the men killed were only trying to protect their families.”