KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan's president on Tuesday ordered NATO to stop bombing homes, citing the risk of civilian casualties and putting him on a collision course with his Western protectors who insist the attacks are an essential weapon and will continue.
It was Hamid Karzai's strongest statement against alliance airstrikes and further complicated a difficult relationship with the Obama administration as it prepares a troop drawdown in the increasingly unpopular war.
Karzai's remarks were prompted by a recent air attack on Saturday that mistakenly killed a group of children and women in southern Helmand province. Karzai declared it would be the last. "From this moment, airstrikes on the houses of people are not allowed," he told reporters in Kabul.
Ordering airstrikes is a command decision in Afghanistan, and Maj. Sunset Belinsky, a NATO spokeswoman, insisted they would continue. "Coalition forces constantly strive to reduce the chance of civilian casualties and damage to structures," she said. "But when the insurgents use civilians as a shield and put our forces in a position where their only option is to use airstrikes, then they will take that option."
In Brussels, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said NATO airstrikes are still essential. She said the alliance takes Karzai's concerns very seriously and would continue to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties.
Karzai has previously made strong statements against certain military tactics, such as night raids, only to back away. But spokesman Waheed Omar said the president plans to stand firm on this issue, regardless of the fallout with NATO. "The president was clear in saying that any such strikes in the future will make the Afghan government react unilaterally," Omar said.
Karzai did not explain his threat of "unilateral action" but said he plans to discuss it with NATO officials next week.
NATO forces risk being seen as an "occupying force," Karzai said, adopting the same phrase used by Taliban insurgents.
Even so, Karzai's history suggests that he may back off Tuesday's remarks.
NATO said at least nine civilians were killed in Saturday's airstrike in Helmand province. Afghan officials have said 14 were killed, including at least 10 children and two women.
NATO officials apologized for the Nawzad district strike, saying they launched it in response to an insurgent attack on a coalition patrol that killed a U.S. Marine. They said five insurgents occupied a compound and continued to attack coalition troops, who then called in the airstrike.