Airstrike Complicates By RICHARD A. OPPEL JR.
KABUL – If the accounts provided today by top Afghan officials are accurate, the first NATO airstrike gone awry under the new command of Gen. David H. Petraeus killed five Afghan soldiers who seemed to be doing precisely the sort of operation that not enough ever do: Setting a trap – in the middle of the night, no less – to catch or kill militants in a dangerous part of the country where the Taliban are strong.
The American and NATO exit strategy hinges on Afghan troops becoming competent and fearless enough to defend their own country without Western forces holding their hand – or leading the charge – every step of the way. Almost nine years into the occupation, they have fallen woefully short of that. But in the explanation provided Wednesday by the spokesman for the Afghan ministry of defense – but not confirmed yet by western military officials, who have sent officers to investigate – the Afghan troops killed early this morning had been setting an ambush for militants when nearby NATO troops wrongly assumed they were insurgents and called in a helicopter to attack them with high-powered rocket fire.
So while the casualty toll was far less than airstrikes that have incinerated scores of civilians, the killing of what appeared to be an intrepid squad of Afghan troops was a particularly hard blow, and a reminder of just how much is at stake in General Petraeus’ current review of rules governing how hard and fast American and NATO troops can attack perceived threats on the ground.
Troops have widely complained that rules that the recently-fired commander of Western forces, General Stanley A. McChrystal, put in place last year are too restrictive and tie their hands from attacking suspected militants or destroying buildings used to harbor insurgents or launch attacks on troops.
Yet others say there have been few cases identified where it is clear troops have been harmed because they were prevented from properly defending themselves – and that the drop in civilian deaths from airstrikes and night raids has also meant fewer enraged cousins and brothers who themselves become insurgents and kill Americans to avenge the deaths.
Hours after the airstrike, the second-ranking American officer in
And he predicted that there will not be “significant changes” to the rules governing close air support – though he emphasized “that we will have, you know, all the assets available to protect ourselves and our service members when they get in a tough situation.”
Whatever the outcome of the review, the stakes couldn’t be higher for American and NATO troops – who are dying at twice the pace of last year – or for Afghan civilians, and Afghan soldiers.
“Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has happened,” a mournful Gen. Zahir Azimi, the spokesman for the Afghan ministry of defense, said on Wednesday. “But we hope this would be the last one.”
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