Afghan President Karzai demands NATO stop airstrikes on homes

The NATO air campaign has played a critical role in the battle against the Taliban, but airstrikes that also kill civilians are further eroding support for the war.

Ahmad Masood/Reuters
Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai gestures as he speaks during a news conference in Kabul, on May 31. Karzai warned the NATO-led force in Afghanistan on Tuesday that launching attacks on Afghan homes in pursuit of insurgents was 'not allowed' and that patience with the tactic had run out after a spate of civilian casualties.

After giving NATO forces their “last warning” to stop civilian casualties, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has upped the stakes by demanding that international forces stop airstrikes on Afghan houses.

“If they don’t stop airstrikes on Afghan homes, their presence in Afghanistan will be considered as an occupying force and against the will of the Afghan people,” Mr. Karzai told reporters. “Such attacks will no longer be allowed.”

The Afghan president has threatened unspecified action if the bombings continue. But strong pronouncements such as this one have become common for the president, and he has yet to act on any of his threats. Meanwhile, it seems unlikely that NATO forces will stop their air war as a result of Karzai’s demand.

“Air support is very important for the foreign forces in Afghanistan,” says Babrak Shinwary, a military expert and former member of parliament from Nagarhar Province. “Afghanistan is a mountainous country and soldiers cannot arrive quickly to remote area so that’s why they’re relying on bombing.”

NATO air support has played a critical role in helping Afghan forces fight the Taliban in remote areas of the country like Nuristan Province, says Mr. Shinwary. He adds that given the constraints posed by rugged terrain, it would have been unrealistic for NATO to send ground forces to offer immediate help to the besieged province that is struggling to fight off the Taliban.

Karzai’s demand comes after an attack in Helmand killed nine people, mostly women and children. There has been mounting anger over civilian causalities here, along with a growing antiforeigner sentiment, which came to the fore during massive Quran burning protests in April.

In response to Karzai’s comments, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force has emphasized its continued efforts to consult with Afghan officials to ensure that operations have the approval of high-level Afghan intelligence and military officials.

“This year our efforts have reduced further loss of innocent civilian life in the conduct of Afghan and the international security assistance force ISAF operations, although we continue to do everything we can to reduce them further,” says Rear Admiral Vic Beck, International Security Assistance Force’s director of public affairs. “Gen. [David] Petraeus has repeatedly noted that every liberation force has to be very conscious that it can, over time, become seen as an occupation force. He has long stated that extending the ‘half-life’ of the period during which an outside force is regarded positively by its partners and the people is very important.”

If NATO heeds Karzai's demand and stops bombing houses, such an action could severely weaken its efforts. Without official bases, insurgents tend to operate in homes and other civilian buildings. International forces would effectively be limited to using their air power to only attack insurgents in open areas.

“In Afghanistan, the NATO forces need to have night raids and bombings, but they need to be careful,” says Usteth Masood, a political expert and professor Kabul University.

Karzai has also proven to have an erratic track record when it comes to international relations, adds Mr. Masood. Aside from oscillating between support and condemnation of US and NATO forces here, he’s also taken a similar line with Pakistan, sometimes condemning it for harboring terrorists and other times calling it a close friend and ally.

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