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Coalition forces comply with Karzai on airstrikes

Afghan leader seeks to protect residential areas

KABUL — General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the new commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said Sunday that he would comply with an intended order by President Hamid Karzai that prohibits Afghan forces from calling in NATO airstrikes on residential areas.

Dunford, who has been on the job here 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.

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Karzai announced his planned decree Saturday after 10 civilians, including five women and four children, died in a NATO airstrike 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 has repeatedly lashed out at the coalition over civilian casualties. NATO says it does its best to limit them.

Dunford said Sunday that international forces have made ‘‘extraordinary progress in mitigating the risk to civilians.’’ The four-star general, a 57-year-old Boston native, took command from fellow Marine General John Allen on Feb. 10.

Dunford 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 here by the end of 2014.

One of his challenges is dealing with the mercurial and combative Karzai, who some US 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 US troops have died.

‘There must be air support to help all those ground forces on the battlefield.’

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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 and resourceful Taliban insurgency.

In a speech Saturday at a Kabul military academy, Karzai said he intended to issue an order Sunday ‘‘stating that under no conditions can Afghan forces request foreign airstrikes on Afghan homes or Afghan villages during operations.’’

‘‘Our forces ask for air support from foreigners, and children get killed in an airstrike,’’ the Afghan leader added.

Dunford said he respected Afghan sovereignty and would meet with the country’s army chief and defense minister to ‘‘work through the details’’ of the new airstrike arrangement Karzai wants.

‘‘We can continue to support the Afghan National Security Forces and meet the president’s intent,’’ Dunford said. ‘‘There are other ways to support our Afghan partners other than air ordnance,’’ he added, without elaborating.

Last week, Dunford met with Karzai to express condolences for the 10 civilians killed Tuesday and other casualties, and NATO launched an investigation.

Because Afghanistan has only an incipient air force, NATO must fill the void to protect its troops and the Afghans.

A former Afghan general, Amrullah Aman, reacted with surprise to Karzai’s remarks in an interview with the Associated Press.

‘‘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. President Obama has ordered half the remaining 66,000 US troops 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.’’ The civilians killed in that bombardment were celebrating a wedding in eastern Logar Province.

The death of civilians during military operations, particularly in airstrikes, has been among the most divisive issues of the 11-year-old war. The US-led coalition has implemented measures to mitigate them, but the Afghan military also relies heavily on air support to gain an upper hand in the fight against Taliban militants and other insurgents.

The US-led coalition said after the June attack that it would limit airstrikes to a self-defense weapon of last resort for troops and would avoid hitting structures that could house civilians. The coalition, however, can still carry out airstrikes on its own accord. ‘‘I believe the support we will provide to the Afghans is exactly consistent with the coalition’s tactical directive,’’ Dunford said.

The UN mission in Afghanistan said 83 civilians were killed and 46 wounded in aerial attacks by international military forces in the first half of 2012, the AP reported. That figure was down 23 percent from the same period of 2011 — the deadliest year on record for civilians in the Afghan war.

The UN said two-thirds of the casualties last year were women and children and insurgents were responsible for the overwhelming majority of the deaths.

Karzai’s decision could hamper the Afghan force’s ability to fight the insurgency because it eliminates one of their most potent weapons. It also runs counter to Afghan requests for NATO to supply their security forces with aircraft capable of carrying out airstrikes.

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