QALAT, Afghanistan — A U.S. airstrike targeting a convoy of buses traveling in southern Afghanistan killed 27 civilians and wounded a dozen more in a bombing that could fuel a political backlash against the ongoing military offensive in Afghanistan.
The Afghan cabinet on Monday condemned what it called the "unacceptable" attack and called on NATO troops to "coordinate with the Afghan security forces" before any operation. A statement issued by the cabinet said four women and a child were among those killed in the airstrike, while 12 others were injured.
The airstrike, along a main road near the border of Uruzgan and Daikundi provinces on Sunday, occurred when U.S. Special Forces piloting Little Bird helicopters fired on the convoy after intercepting Taliban radio conversations, the Washington Post reported, citing a senior U.S. military official. The nearest coalition forces were about 7 miles away at the time.
The Special Forces helicopters were hunting for insurgents who had escaped the NATO offensive in the Marja area, about 150 miles away, according to Gen. Abdul Hameed, an Afghan National Army commander in Dehrawood, which is part of Oruzgan province. Hameed, interviewed by telephone, said there had been no request from any ground forces to carry out an attack.
The airstrike took place in an area under Dutch military control, and there were concerns over the possibility of political repercussions in the Netherlands, where the Afghan war is unpopular. On Saturday the government collapsed over an effort to extend the deployment of 2,000 Dutch troops in Afghanistan.
U.S. military officials view the Helmand operation as a chance to boost public support and momentum for their mission by demonstrating a decisive victory in one Taliban hotspot. That goal could be undermined by outrage over civilian casualties.
The top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, held a video conference Monday morning with task force and regional commanders across the country to remind commanders about the need for "the judicious application of fire," a senior military official told the Washington Post.
"There was no danger to coalition forces," the official said. "He was apoplectic. It was wrong."
McChrystal apologized to President Hamid Karzai after the airstrike, according to a statement from Karzai's office. It was the second time this month that McChrystal has taken such a step. The first followed a rocket strike that killed at least 12 people in a home in Marja.
"We are extremely saddened by the tragic loss of innocent lives," McChrystal said in a statement. "I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan people and inadvertently killing or injuring civilians undermines their trust and confidence in our mission. We will redouble our effort to regain that trust."
"It's not the first or the last time this kind of incident has taken place. It's business as usual," said Hashim Watanwal, a Parliament member from Uruzgan. "It's one of those unprovoked blind bombings."
Watanwal put the death toll in the bombing at 33, including three children. On Monday, he spoke with Interior Minister Hanif Atmar, who instructed him to "call the people you know to tell them to stay calm, to stay patient, that there should be no retaliatory violence," he recalled.
Under McChrystal, the American military has made reducing civilian casualties a top priority, as the U.S. strategy has shifted from killing insurgents to protecting the Afghan people. The military has issued rules restricting the use of air power, raids at night and driving speeds among other practices aimed at limiting the harm and humiliation that U.S. operations cause civilians.
These changes came after a recognition that killing civilians inflamed the insurgency and turned villagers against NATO and Afghan troops.
A total of 2,412 Afghan civilians were killed last year, the highest number in any year of the eight-year war, according to a U.N. report. But deaths attributed to NATO troops dropped nearly 30 percent as a result of new rules curbing airpower and heavy weapons when civilians are at risk, it said.
That strategy is facing a major test in Marja, where Taliban fighters have mingled among civilians in hopes that U.S. and Afghan troops will hold their fire.
Fighting in Marja was less intense Monday than in previous days, said a Marine spokesman, Capt. Abe Sipe.
Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.
That's how much the U.S. military plans to spend to build nearly 200 police stations for the Afghan National Police over the next year. The investment comes as the Obama administration intends to build the force up to 160,000 police officers by 2013. At about $6 million a police station, most of the facilities will have a barbed-wire perimeter with guards posted in each of the four corners, according to U.S. Corps of Engineers designs. The walls and roofs will be built with reinforced concrete. By some estimates, Afghan police forces lose 10 percent of their ranks to insurgent attacks. — McClatchy Newspapers