KABUL, Afghanistan — After a week of tense public disagreement over the civilian casualty toll in a U.S.-led raid in western Afghanistan, officials from the United Nations, the Afghan government and the NATO-led force in the country said Saturday that all sides had agreed to a joint investigation.
As many as 90 civilians, about two-thirds of them children, were killed in the Aug. 22 raid in Herat province, the United Nations has asserted, with the Afghan government coming up with a count only slightly lower. But U.S. military officials have disputed those numbers, saying they believe about 30 people were killed in the early morning strike on the village of Azizabad, only five of them civilians.
In the wake of the raid, President Hamid Karzai made his most strongly worded appeal yet for greater caution by Western troops during combat operations in populated areas. The Afghan leader said the deaths and their circumstances warranted a broad re-examination of operations by coalition troops, who are trying to contain an increasingly powerful Taliban-led insurgency.
If the U.N. estimates are borne out, the toll would represent what is believed to be the greatest number of civilian fatalities caused by Western troops in a single incident since the Afghan conflict began nearly seven years ago.
The issue is extremely sensitive for all sides. The Afghan government is keenly aware that such casualties erode public support for the Western troop presence and heighten anger toward the U.S.-backed Karzai administration.
Western military officials, for their part, are deeply frustrated by what they describe as a Taliban propaganda war using civilians as pawns. Taliban fighters, they say, routinely place civilians in harm's way by using populated areas as a staging ground for strikes against Western forces, as well as carrying out suicide bombings that are far likelier to kill civilians than better-protected coalition troops.
Because much of the fighting takes place in remote areas, disparate accounts of a given incident are not uncommon. But this incident was unusual in the starkly different accounts that emerged, not only of the overall death toll and the number of noncombatants involved, but also the circumstances of the raid.
Some Afghan officials have suggested publicly that a local clan had tricked U.S. Special Forces, who conducted the raid along with Afghan commandos, into carrying out the strike against one of its rival clans.
But U.S. authorities stoutly have maintained that Taliban fighters were operating in the area, and that the raiders' main target, a commander named Mullah Siddiq, was among the militants killed.
U.S. officials said their own investigations in the hours immediately after the strike had turned up no evidence of large-scale civilian casualties, such as freshly dug graves. But villagers said it took time to extract bodies from the rubble of more than a dozen family compounds, where a large extended clan had gathered for a memorial service.