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A NATO airstrike mistakenly killed at least 27 Afghanistan civilians in the southern province of Uruzgan on Sunday, Afghan officials said Monday, in one of the deadliest attacks since a September strike killed up to 140 civilians in Kunduz province.
The airstrike was not related to the massive NATO offensive ongoing in Marjah, in neighboring Helmand Province, but is another blow to the new US strategy of winning over the local population by protecting civilians.
The US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in a statement that the Afghans were mistakenly believed to be insurgents on their way to attack coalition forces when they were attacked, reports The New York Times. According to the statement, troops found women and children when they arrived at the scene, and transported them to medical centers.
The Times quotes an Interior Ministry official who said the civilians were traveling in two Land Cruisers and a pickup truck near the remote mountain pass of Khotal Chowzar, which is under Talian control, when they were mistakenly bombed. The BBC, which includes a map of the region, said the Afghan cabinet revised the death toll downwards from a prior statement that 33 were killed.
The ISAF said it had begun an investigation into the incident, but Reuters reports the Afghan cabinet called the killings "unjustifiable.” CNN reports that a Dari and Pashtun version of the cabinet’s statement said: "The council of ministers strongly condemns the repeated killing of civilians by NATO," a sentence that was not included in the English version.
According to Reuters, the US commander in Afghanistan expressed his regret in the ISAF statement.
"We are extremely saddened by the tragic loss of innocent lives," US General Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, said in the ISAF statement.
"I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan people and inadvertently killing or injuring civilians undermines their trust and confidence in our mission," he said.
It was this type of incident that the new US strategy, outlined by General McChrystal, was intended to prevent. Civilian casualties have provoked anger from both Afghan civilians and the government, and the US had hoped to win over civilians by assuring them they were safer with the coalition than with the Taliban.
But the effects of the airstrike could be felt several hundred miles away in Marjah, where US and Afghan forces are embarked on the first real test of the new strategy, as The Christian Science Monitor reported. There, as in Uruzgan, the troops face the major challenge of distinguishing between friend and foe. That is made more difficult in Marjah, the Monitor reported, by the Taliban’s use of civilians as shields. And an airstrike that killed civilians in Marjah last week has already put the force on the defensive.
The Wall Street Journal reports that progress in winning over civilians in Marjah is progressing slowly, as Afghans are unsure which side will offer them the most protection.
The town measures roughly six miles by 12 miles […] A relatively small portion of that expanse is under military control, but US Marines and Afghan soldiers dominate the most densely populated areas already and are now pressing outwards, a few hundred yards at a time. Senior commanders are pushing field officers to pick up the pace and establish a sufficient security bubble to allow Afghan government officials and aid workers to get to work.