NATO airstrike that kills Afghan soldiers deals fresh blow to ties

Drone strikes are a key sticking point in shaping a security deal with Afghanistan that would allow a US presence after the planned troop withdrawal at the end of 2014.

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A NATO airstrike on Thursday morning killed at least five Afghan soldiers and injured at least eight others in a tragic incident of friendly fire that is likely to further inflame the battered Washington-Kabul relations. 

The strike, which hit an Afghan National Army outpost in the country’s volatile Logar Province, located about 50 miles from Kabul, came from a drone, according to The New York Times. It was most likely “the result of poor coordination between the people on the ground and the operators of the drone,” the Logar provincial spokesman told the newspaper. A Logar provincial spokesman described the outpost as the “the front line against Taliban,” the Washington Post reported.

The development is a fresh blow to the fragile and increasingly fractious relationship between Washington and Kabul. The US has struggled to reach a security deal with outgoing Afghan president Hamid Karzai for continued US presence in the country after the international troops are pulled out in late 2014. NATO airstrikes – and Afghan ability to prosecute them for civilian deaths – are the key sticking point, and today’s events stand certain to widen the rift further.   

The US-led Afghanistan International Security Assistance Force said in a statement that it has launched an investigation “to determine the circumstances that led to this unfortunate incident…. We value the strong relationship with our Afghan partners, and we will determine what actions will be taken to ensure incidents like this do not happen again.” 

Based on preliminary reports, the airstrike appears to have been conducted without request from the Afghan troops, the Washington Post reported, citing a Logar Afghan military spokesman. The US frequently undertakes airstrikes at the request of Afghan forces during intense clashes with the Taliban, but also maintains the ability to strike high-level targets unilaterally.

"The post is totally destroyed," Khalilullah Kamal, the Charkh district governor, told Agence France-Presse after visiting the site. "The Americans used to be in that post but since they left, the ANA [Afghan National Army] took over. The post is on a hilltop. The attack was conducted by drones." 

Mr. Karzai, who cannot run for reelection, has often used botched airstrikes to slam the US, leveling increasingly vehement criticism at the American-led war effort as the April 5 presidential election approaches. Most of the leading candidates have indicated that they’d be willing to consider reviving negotiations of the battered bilateral security agreement in Washington.    

The agreement would allow for 8,000 to 12,000 US troops to stay in Afghanistan and continue training the Afghan National Army, as well for billions of dollars in aid to be delivered, after the NATO combat mission ends in the end of 2014, according to the AFP.

A continued US presence would help strengthen government troops, but would generate continued controversy at home following the outcry against US actions in large part fueled by Karzai’s criticism.

The US currently has around 33,600 troops in Afghanistan, according to Deutsche Welle, which is down from the 2010 high of 100,000. 

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