Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaking in Kabul on Saturday, said he plans… (Ahmad Jamshid / Associated…)
KABUL, Afghanistan — The commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan said Sunday that his forces were prepared to comply with President Hamid Karzai's demand that Afghan forces stop requesting international airstrikes in residential areas.
Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. downplayed the effects of Karzai's directive, even though Afghanistan's fledgling security forces rely entirely on U.S. and NATO warplanes for air power against Taliban-led insurgents.
"We can continue to support the Afghan National Security Forces and meet the president's intent," Dunford said.
A day earlier, in a speech at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, Karzai railed against a joint Afghan-NATO attack last week that local officials said killed 10 civilians, including women and children, in addition to four Taliban commanders in eastern Kunar province. The Afghan leader said he would issue a decree that "no Afghan military and security forces in any circumstances can ask for the foreigners' planes for carrying out operations in Afghanistan's homes and villages."
The remarks represented the latest broadside by Karzai against the coalition that has trained, equipped and financed the force of 350,000 Afghan soldiers and police who are due to take responsibility for the country's security later this year.
Civilian casualties have long been a point of contention between Karzai and the coalition, reaching a crisis point last June when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization launched an airstrike against insurgents who had taken shelter in a wedding party. Eighteen civilians were among the dead. In the wake of the incident, NATO implemented rules limiting airstrikes in populated areas. U.S. officials say that civilian casualties in coalition operations fell by 49% from 2011 to 2012 and that the number of children killed or wounded in air operations fell by nearly 40%.
Last week, Karzai summoned Dunford to explain the Kunar attack. The coalition has declined to discuss the incident, saying only that it was investigating the reports of civilian deaths.
Military analysts said Karzai's decree, if issued, could hamstring Afghan security units, very few of which are capable of operating without coalition support. This spring, say U.S. officials, Afghan security forces will take the lead in security operations nationwide, setting the stage for a crucial test for the young force as insurgent operations usually pick up in the warm-weather months.
"It could provide ground for the insurgency to increase their areas of operations," said Jawed Kohistani, an independent military analyst in Kabul, the capital. "We have the summer coming and insurgent activities may increase, which puts more pressure on Afghan forces.
"I hope that the Afghan security forces and their leadership convince the president that there is need for NATO air support."
The response to Karzai's comments from Afghan military officials wasn't immediately clear, but Dunford, who took over as coalition commander last week, was due to meet later Sunday with Sher Mohammad Karimi, the Afghan army chief of staff.
"We're going to work through the details [of Karzai's order] in the coming days," Dunford said.
If airstrikes are limited, "there are other ways we can support the Afghan forces besides aviation," Dunford added, without elaborating. Experts say that could signal an expanded role for U.S. and Afghan special forces or ground-based artillery systems, which carry the risk of inaccuracies.