KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan apologized Friday for mistakenly killing a 2-year-old boy during an airstrike, the latest crisis to confront American officials hoping to finalize a long-term security agreement between the two countries.
Late Thursday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai blasted the U.S. military for the death and accused coalition troops serving in Afghanistan of "oppressions." Within hours, U.S. and coalition military leaders were rushing to try to control the fallout of the strike, which also wounded two women.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, called Karzai to apologize personally. The international coalition also issued a statement saying it "deeply regrets" the incident.
The civilian casualties couldn't have come at a worse time for U.S. diplomats, who have watched with dismay over the past week as Karzai appeared increasingly dismissive of administration plans to keep up to 10,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan after 2014.
In a series of public statements, Karzai has insisted he may wait until next year to decide on the matter, even though the administration is urging him to sign the agreement by the end of year. If he does not, administration officials say, they will begin preparations for withdrawing all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year.
The death of the child further complicates the already strained relationship, giving Karzai yet more grounds to cite in his quest for concessions.
Aimal Faizi, a Karzai spokesman, said Friday evening the agreement will be signed only after there is an "absolute end to all military operations and airstrikes on residential areas by foreign troops which can result in civilian casualties."
He added: "Apologies cannot bring back lives."
Karzai said a suspected U.S. drone fired into a house shortly before noon Thursday in the southern province of Helmand. The coalition acknowledged the incident Friday morning, saying that a child was apparently killed during an operation targeting "an insurgent riding a motorbike."
A senior coalition official told the Washington Post that the child was on the road when the explosion occurred and denied Karzai's claim that a house had been targeted.
The intended target, who was also killed, was a mid-level Taliban commander who had been involved in attacks on coalition troops and was organizing lethal aid to insurgents in the area, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under coalition ground rules.
Coalition officials declined to say whether the strike was carried out by a drone or a manned aircraft.
During his call to Karzai, Dunford promised to launch an immediate investigation. But the governor of Helmand and other local officials denounced the attack, saying it was just one of two coalition strikes in the province Thursday that had resulted in a civilian death.
Abdul Bari Barakzai, head of the Helmand provincial council, said a "farmer in a field" was also killed by a suspected U.S. drone strike Thursday.
"These attacks will have a very bad impact on the signing" of the agreement, Barakzai said. "People nationally will rise up and say, 'We expect U.S. forces to protect us from our neighbors, but instead you are bombing and killing us.' "
A coalition official confirmed that a second "precision strike" had taken place in the area but said it killed an insurgent.
"There were no other casualties," the official said.