Karzai Bans Afghan Forces from Seeking Airstrikes

Afghan Army Standing in Circle

KABUL, Afghanistan - President Hamid Karzai on Monday officially banned Afghan security forces from requesting international airstrikes during operations in residential areas.

The presidential order came two days after Karzai said he would issue the decree amid anger over a NATO airstrike requested by the national intelligence service that local officials said killed at least 10 civilians and four insurgents.

Critics have expressed concerns that the ban will hobble Afghan troops who rely heavily on air support to gain the upper hand in the fight against insurgents on the ground.

But the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, said he believes the American-led NATO coalition can operate effectively under the terms of the ban.

The death of civilians during military operations, particularly in airstrikes, has been among a major source of acrimony between Karzai's government and foreign forces.

The presidential order was directed at the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the National Directorate of Security.

"During your operations, don't call for air support from international forces during operations on residential areas," the decree said. It did not provide more details.

Dunford said Karzai's decision was in line with a tactical directive issued last year by Dunford's predecessor, Marine Gen. John Allen, which was aimed at mitigating civilian casualties.

He said coalition forces believe they can conduct "effective operations within the president's guidance."

The U.S.-led military coalition said last June that it would limit airstrikes to a self-defense weapon of last resort for troops and would avoid hitting structures that could house civilians. That followed a bombardment that killed 18 civilians celebrating a wedding in eastern Logar province, which drew an apology from the American commander.

Tensions rose again earlier this month when the civilians were killed in the northeastern Kunar province.

The coalition, however, can still carry out airstrikes on its own accord.

"I believe the support we will provide to the Afghans is exactly consistent with the coalition's tactical directive," Dunford said.

Karzai's decision, however, could hamper the Afghan force's ability to fight the insurgency as it robs them of one of their most potent weapons. It also runs counter to Afghan requests for NATO to supply their security forces with aircraft capable of carrying out airstrikes. The Afghan military has repeatedly implored the United States for jet fighters, such as F-16's, and heavy weapons - including tanks and artillery.

"There are other ways we can support our Afghan partners other than air ordnance," Dunford said without elaborating. He said the Afghan security forces will have to take Karzai's decree into account when they make future operational plans.

The U.N. mission in Afghanistan said 83 civilians were killed and 46 wounded in aerial attacks by international military forces in the first half of 2012. That figure was down 23 percent from the same period of 2011 - the deadliest year on record for civilians in the Afghan war. It said two-thirds of the casualties last year were women and children and insurgents were responsible for the overwhelming majority of the deaths.

Afghans currently lead about 90 percent of military operations nationwide and will fully take charge in the spring. However, they remain heavily dependent on the coalition for air support and medical evacuations from remote areas.

The coalition insists it takes special care to avoid civilian casualties in operations while noting many high-level Taliban commanders and other militants have been killed.

Earlier Monday, the U.S.-led coalition said that an Afghan soldier-turned-insurgent who was feted by the Taliban for killing an American soldier during an insider attack in eastern Afghanistan last year was killed in a raid last Wednesday.

NATO identified the insurgent as Mahmood and said that he and an accomplice, identified only as Rashid, were killed in eastern Kunar province's Ghaziabad district. No other details were provided.

Mahmood is thought responsible for the May 11 killing of U.S. Army 1st Lt. Alejo Thompson, who died during an insider attack on a base in Kunar. The attack also wounded two American soldiers. Mahmood, in his early 20's and who went only by one name later fled. Thompson, 30, a father of two, was from Yuma, Arizona. He was based at Fort Carson, Colorado.

"Mahmood was responsible for the death of one American service member during the May 11, 2012, insider attack in Kunar province," the coalition said in a statement. It added that "Rashid was Mahmood's associate and a former Afghan National Army soldier who facilitated and assisted with insider attack planning and execution."

After he fled, a man named Mahmood was highlighted in a Taliban video that showed him being welcomed as a hero while entering an insurgent camp. In the video, he was shown in his Afghan army uniform, his U.S.-made M-16 assault rifle, and with garlands of flowers around his neck.

The Taliban claimed he had defected to their side.

Killings by uniformed Afghans of foreign soldiers and civilians rose dramatically last year. According to NATO, so-called insider attacks killed 61 coalition personnel in 45 incidents last year, compared to 35 killed in 21 attacks a year earlier. This tally does not include the Dec. 24 killing of an American civilian adviser by a female member of the Afghan police because an investigation of the reportedly mentally unstable woman is continuing.

In some cases, militants have donned Afghan army or police uniforms to attack foreign troops. And a number of attacks have also been carried out by members of Afghan security forces against their own comrades.

Insider attacks have dropped sharply after NATO forces took steps to mitigate them, including having armed "guardian angels" looking over troops as they sleep.

Only one insider attack so far this year. That was the Jan. 7 killing of a British soldier in southern Helmand province by a man in an Afghan army uniform.

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Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Patrick Quinn contributed to this report.

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