Five Afghan soldiers have been accidentally killed in a NATO airstrike, officials in Afghanistan have said. Two more Afghan soldiers were wounded. A spokesman for the Afghan defence ministry condemned the incident, saying it was not the first time Afghan soldiers had died in “friendly fire”. The incident comes as international forces try to improve co-ordination with their Afghan counterparts in order to eventually transfer more security operations to them. Spokesman Brig-Gen. Josef Blotz said a joint investigation had been launched.
The airstrike took place around 4 a.m. local time as the troops were preparing to ambush insurgents in Ghazni province’s Andar district, about 100 miles southwest of Kabul. Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said the soldiers had been launching a morning ambush on militants in the Sarda dam and Rahim Khail village area when a NATO aircraft opened fire on them without warning. He said two other soldiers were wounded in the attack. The Afghan soldiers “had made an ambush for the enemy” when they were attacked early Wednesday morning, said Gen. Azimi. (The New York Times) Gen. Azimi said the “air force” had “bombarded” the Afghan soldiers; a NATO official later said a helicopter had fired a single rocket into the formation of Afghan troops. “ISAF aircraft bombed and martyred five of our soldiers,” said Gen. Azimi. (Reuters) “We condemn this action. Unfortunately this is not the first time such an incident has happened, but we wish that at least this would be the last one,” Gen. Azimi said. (BBC) According to a NATO official, the helicopter attacked the Afghan soldiers after a patrol of NATO troops spotted the Afghans and, mistakenly beliving they were militants, fed the information to the attack helicopter that fired the rocket. It was also not clear what time the attack took place. Gen. Azimi said he believed it occurred about 4 a.m., but Mr. Ghani, the head of security in Ghazni Province, said that the attack was closer to midnight. Ghani also said that six soldiers were killed and one wounded.
NATO confirmed the airstrike had gone wrong and said it regretted the deaths. NATO spokesman Josef Blotz confirmed the botched airstrike. He said he regretted the Afghan National Army deaths, telling reporters at a news briefing that the strike is “perhaps a co-ordination issue. We are obviously not absolutely clear whether there were Afghan national security forces in the area,” he said. (CBC) Mr. Blotz did not identify which country’s aircraft attacked the Afghan troops. A statement released by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said that the inquiry would determine the facts and circumstances surrounding the deaths, which occurred when “an ISAF aircrew engaged the individuals with precision-guided munitions.” (BBC) “This loss of life is tragic, and we offer condolences to all those who lost loved ones,” said ISAF spokesperson Jane Campbell. “We work extremely hard to co-ordinate and synchronize our operations and we deeply regret the loss of lives from our Afghan partners.” (BBC) ISAF has also extended the personal condolences of U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, to families of the victims.
Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, the commander of ISAF’s Joint Command in Afghanistan and the No. 2 U.S. military officer there, said a joint investigation by coalition forces and the Afghan government was under way. But he suggested the problem could be due to a simple lack of coordination. “I’m not sure what the investigation will show. But we do have a challenge coordinating the efforts of the Afghan police, the Afghan army and the coalition forces at night, sometimes,” Rodriguez told Pentagon reporters, speaking via videoconference from Kabul. (Reuters)
Civilian Casualties and “Friendly Fire” Incidents
Civilian casualties and “friendly fire” incidents involving Afghan troops have been a frequent source of friction between Western powers and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Casualties among NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan hit a record high in June and commanders have warned they expect violence to rise over the summer, raising questions about whether more should be done to shield troops. Former U.S. and NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal made avoiding civilian casualties a priority in a policy known as “courageous restraint.” (BBC)
His successor, Gen. Petraeus, will not abandon the policy but, according to senior sources, he believes some units are interpreting its rules too cautiously. Gen. Petraeus is reviewing rules of engagement meant to avoid civilian casualties, which critics say are too restrictive and put coalition forces at risk. But Rodriguez, echoing previous comments by Petraeus ruled out any major changes to the rules of engagement and said that any modifications would still shield civilians as much as possible. “(Petraeus) wants to make sure that as we move forward with any adjustments, if there are any, that we continue to protect the Afghan civilians as much and as effective as we possibly can,” he said. (Reuters)
Elsewhere in Afghanistan
About 140,000 international troops are fighting alongside Afghan forces to quell a Taliban-led insurgency. The fiercest fighting is taking place in southern Afghanistan, which is the focus of a new US-led push to regain control of militant-held areas.
In other developments, NATO said three U.S. soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday. It did not give any further details.
Britain Troop Withdrawal
Britain announced on Wednesday that it would withdraw its troops from the Sangin valley in the southern Helmand province, handing over responsibility to U.S. forces. The Sanging valley has been one of the deadliest for British forces, accounting for 99 of the 312 soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001. About 1,000 Royal Marines will be shifted out of the Sangin valley area by the end of 2010. Troops who had been in the area will be redeployed to central Helmand province, Britain’s Defence ministry said in a statement. Britain has 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, most based in Helmand.