KABUL, AFGHANISTAN, AND ISTANBUL, TURKEY — In an incident that could seriously undermine the central U.S. aim in Afghanistan, dozens of civilians were killed or injured early Friday in a NATO airstrike, Afghan authorities said.
The predawn strike on a pair of hijacked fuel tankers in a remote part of northern Kunduz province killed more than 70 people, most of them civilians, according to Afghan police, provincial officials and doctors.
Dozens of villagers suffered serious burns in the massive fireball ignited when the tankers were hit, they said.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is investigating the incident, which comes at a time of deepening political turmoil in Afghanistan. Tensions are running high as votes are tallied in the country's disputed presidential election.
Only days earlier, Western military officials touted figures showing a dramatic drop-off in civilian casualties inadvertently caused by Western troops, crediting strict new rules of engagement for the decline during July and August.
Upon assuming command of American and other Western forces in Afghanistan in mid-June, U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal declared the safeguarding of civilian lives his top priority, noting that such casualties, perhaps more than any other single factor, erode Afghan support for the presence of foreign forces.
In the initial hours after Friday's strike in Kunduz, Western military officials expressed confidence that nearly all those killed were insurgents.
But later reports trickling in from the scene painted a grim picture of impoverished villagers being engulfed by the explosion while trying to siphon fuel from the stranded tankers.
The incident could increase the strain on ties among NATO allies, further complicating the troubled war effort. The strike was called in by German troops, who make up the bulk of Western forces in Kunduz. Involvement in such a controversial act could depress already flagging domestic support in Germany for the Afghan mission.
Not long ago, Kunduz, near the border with Tajikistan, was considered a relatively quiet corner of the country, making it a logical base for German forces, who operate under strict "caveats" limiting their engagement in active combat. But insurgents in recent months have made increasingly bold forays into the area.
A Western military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details of the airstrike, said the destruction of the hijacked tankers was considered a matter of urgency because it was feared that they could be used to launch suicide strikes on a German base close by.
The hijack drama began Thursday night when suspected Taliban militants commandeered the two tanker trucks on a main road. NATO recently started sending supplies into Afghanistan via Tajikistan, to the north, after Taliban militants in Pakistan's tribal areas repeatedly attacked what had been the most widely used supply route, which runs through the Khyber Pass.
After the hijacking, the trucks were tracked via aerial surveillance to a spot near the village of Omar Khel, where they became stuck when the hijackers tried to drive across a riverbed. Western military officials said they believed there were no civilians in the area, a crucial precondition for airstrikes under the new tactical directive issued by McChrystal soon after he took command.
But as is almost always the case, there was a time lag of more than half an hour between the decision to call in a strike and its execution, officials said. That may have given villagers time to get to the trucks after word spread that there was fuel for the taking.
Some Afghan officials said the Taliban encouraged people to take advantage of the bonanza on their doorstep, alerting villagers in the middle of the night to the stranded trucks' presence.
The initial casualty tally was provided by local officials, including pro-Western provincial Gov. Mohammed Omar, who said that many of the 70-plus dead were civilians. That number, which fluctuated through the day, could change. Because it was dark and the area remote, confusion was likely about how many people were present, how many were killed or hurt and where they were taken.
The handling of the incident will be a test for McChrystal's handpicked inner circle. In previous cases of large-scale civilian casualties, denials and slow investigations by U.S. and other Western forces inflamed anti-coalition sentiment.
It is not uncommon for such investigations to end with wide disagreement between Afghan and Western officials about the scope and nature of civilian casualties, engendering bitterness among the people.
In one of the most contentious cases, Afghan officials said about 140 civilians were killed in airstrikes in May outside the western village of Garani; the U.S. military acknowledged about half that number and said most were insurgents.