(CNSNews.com) – The commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said Sunday coalition forces will comply with President Hamid Karzai’s directive banning national forces from calling in coalition airstrikes, an order that has left some Afghans troubled.
U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, just days into his new post, told reporters Karzai was exercising “sovereignty” and that there were ways for the coalition to support the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) other than the use of air ordnance.
“We are prepared to provide support in line with the president’s intent,” he said, adding that he would discuss “technical” details with the Afghan defense minister and army chief.
Dunford said ISAF had made “extraordinary progress in mitigating the risk to civilians.”
Speaking at the national military academy in Kabul on Saturday, Karzai announced that he was ordering an end to Afghan forces requesting coalition air support under “any circumstances.”
He was reacting to an ISAF airstrike in eastern Afghanistan Wednesday in which ten civilians – including children – had been killed, together with four Taliban fighters. The air support had been called in during a joint ISAF-ANSF raid.
Karzai’s announcement drew some criticism, with Afghan media reporting that Ahmad Zia Massoud, Karzai’s former vice-president and head of the opposition National Front coalition, said it amounted to virtually legitimizing a Taliban takeover in the countryside.
“Our ground troops cannot fight the Taliban – they are not as equipped as the Taliban,” Tolo TV quoted Massoud as saying. “This means that the Taliban will gradually take over villages and then districts.”
Massoud made the critical comments while addressing a youth conference in Kabul, the independent Pajhwok Afghan News service reported. (Massoud is the brother of the veteran Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated – evidently by al-Qaeda – on the eve of 9/11.)
In an editorial Monday, the independent Outlook Afghanistan news service questioned the wisdom of the order.
“Keeping in view the lack of a strong Afghan air force, banning the air support requests from international forces might not be a proper way to diminish civilian casualties as Taliban kill more civilians than foreign and Afghan security forces,” it said. “Such a measure would only allow Taliban to kill even more people.”
Noting that the Taliban use civilian areas as a shield, Outlook said if the government wished to limit civilian casualties it should instead consider measures like “supporting the people to drive away insurgents from their towns and villages and encouraging them to report about suspicious people.”
ISAF forces are due to leave by the end of 2014, by which time the ANSF will be expected to exert full security responsibility.
Afghanistan does not have combat air support capability.
According to the NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan, whose aim is to “set the conditions for a professional, fully independent and operationally-capable Afghan Air Force,” the AAF is currently built around Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopters and Cessna fixed-wing aircraft, used for cargo and personnel transport. A week ago the AAF carried out its first ever successful casualty evacuation.
In a report earlier this month the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child said it was “alarmed at reports of the death of hundreds of children as a result of attacks and air strikes by the U.S. military forces in Afghanistan” over the past four years.
It attributed the deaths to a “reported lack of precautionary measures and indiscriminate use of force.”
U.S. Forces–Afghanistan in response called the Geneva-based committee’s claims “categorically unfounded.”
“Equally unsubstantiated is their assertion that U.S. forces use indiscriminate force during their operations,” it said in a February 8 statement. “Finally, the committee’s assertion that U.S. troops do not exercise precautionary measures is entirely false.”
ISAF had reduced civilian casualties by 49 percent in 2012 compared with 2011, and the number of children killed or wounded as a result of air operations had dropped by nearly 40 percent over that year, it said.
In its most recent report (PDF 1.2 MB) on protecting civilians in armed conflict, published last August, the U.N. Assistance Mission Afghanistan said that over the period January-June 2012, 1,145 Afghan civilians had been killed in conflict-related violence, down from 1,510 over the same six-month period in 2011.
UNAMA attributed 80 percent of all civilian casualties to what it calls “Anti-Government Elements,” 10 percent to “Pro-Government Forces,” and said it was unable to determine responsibility in the remaining 10 percent of cases.