KABUL – The new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan said Sunday he would comply with an intended order by President Hamid Karzai that prohibits Afghan forces from calling in NATO airstrikes on residential areas.
Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., on the job there for just a week, said the international coalition would find “other ways” to support Afghan ground forces, which frequently depend on NATO air power in their operations against Taliban insurgents.
Karzai announced his planned decree Saturday after 10 civilians, including five women and four children, died in a NATO airstrike last Tuesday night reportedly called in by Afghan intelligence operatives in a remote village in eastern Konar Province. The air attack on two homes also killed three militant commanders, Afghan officials said.
Karzai repeatedly has lashed out at the coalition over civilian casualties. NATO says it does its best to limit them. Dunford spoke Sunday of international forces’ “extraordinary progress in mitigating the risk to civilians.”
The four-star general, 57, who took command from fellow U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen on Feb. 10, appeared easygoing but frank in an informal gathering he convened Sunday to introduce himself to international and local media. As head of the International Security Assistance Force, as the coalition is officially known, he is tasked with concluding Western forces’ combat mission there by the end of 2014.
One of his challenges is dealing with the mercurial and combative Karzai, who some U.S. officials perceive as ungrateful for the massive support his country has received — mainly from the United States — during the 11-year war, in which 2,177 U.S. troops have died.
NATO has trained and equipped about 350,000 Afghan security forces who are set to assume responsibility for the nation’s defense against a resilient Taliban insurgency.
A former Afghan general, Amrullah Aman, reacted with surprise to Karzai’s remarks in an interview.
“In a country like Afghanistan, where you don’t have heavy artillery and you don’t have air forces to support soldiers on the ground, how will it be possible to defeat an enemy that knows the area well and can hide anywhere?” Aman said Saturday. “There must be air support to help all those ground forces on the battlefield.”
Many analysts express doubt about the capacity of the country’s desertion-prone national police and military forces to hold their own against the Taliban after NATO ends its combat mission.
As they step up the training of Afghan forces, Western troops are accelerating their withdrawal, in part at Karzai’s insistence. U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered half the remaining 66,000 U.S. troops here to depart within a year.
In June, after a NATO air attack killed 18 civilians, Allen restricted the use of strikes against suspected militants “within civilian dwellings.”