KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan President Hamid Karzai took a defiant stand on Tuesday against NATO on airstrikes, saying the military coalition can no longer fire on homes from aircraft in any circumstance - even in defense of Afghan and foreign forces.
Karzai said that's what he and the U.S.-led coalition agreed following last week's airstrike in eastern Afghanistan's Logar province that killed 18 civilians.
NATO's interpretation of the agreement is significantly different than Karzai's. The coalition says it agreed to restrict airstrikes against houses, but that it would still use air-delivered munitions against civilian dwellings in self-defense of troops on the ground.
The dispute highlights ongoing tension between the international force and Karzai, who has denounced coalition tactics that he says have caused civilian deaths on countless occasions. The international force operates under a U.N. mandate, and while Afghan forces partner with coalition troops on night raids, coalition commanders are the ones who authorize airstrikes.
Though airstrikes on homes are a small part of the international operations in Afghanistan, they have brewed resentment among Afghans - even when there are no casualties - who feel they violate what ought to be safe areas and put civilians at risk.
"An agreement has been reached clearly with NATO that no bombardment of civilian homes for any reason is allowed," Karzai said at a news conference at the presidential palace in Kabul. "This is an absolute disproportionate use of force."
"Even when they are under attack, they cannot use an airplane to bomb Afghan homes - even when they are under attack," he said to underscore his point.
Karzai said that at a meeting after the incident in Logar province, he asked U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan: "Do you do this in the United States? There is police action every day in the United States. ... They don't call in airplanes to bomb the place."
The international military coalition did say that airstrikes were being severely curtailed. Such airstrikes are now being designated a weapon of last resort to rescue soldiers, cutting back their use.
"What we have agreed is that we would not use aviation ordnance on civilian dwellings," Gen. Allen said on Monday during a visit to Zabul province in southern Afghanistan. "Now that doesn't obviate our inherent right to self-defense and we will always use our requirements for self-defense to do whatever we have to, to protect the force."
"But because of civilian casualties, we won't use aviation ordnance on those civilian dwellings unless it's a matter of self-defense and protecting the force."
"We will continue to conduct combat operations against insurgents who use civilian dwellings, but we will not use air-delivered munitions against civilian dwellings unless it is a question of self-defense for our troops on the ground," coalition spokesman Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings said earlier this week.
Commanders previously could order airstrikes against insurgents on houses, as long as they were confident that there were no civilians present. Cummings says that the new restrictions mean commanders will not be able to call in a strike unless it is necessary to save the lives of their troops. This applies even if it is clear there are no civilians in the house.
On other issues, Karzai highlighted the international community's commitment to keep supporting Afghanistan even after foreign forces wind up their combat mission at the end of 2014. He noted upcoming conferences where nations from across the region and the world are expected to pledge their cooperation and financial support to strengthen the Afghan security forces, improve governance and continue development.
At next month's pledging conference in Tokyo, donor nations are in turn expected to press Karzai to do more to battle corruption and build a transparent government.
Karzai said even if he makes another visit to the United States, he will not ask for any other U.S. assistance.
"It's over," the president said, recognizing that donor nations will not continue propping up Afghanistan forever. "We have to do our best," he said. "Our country should stand on its feet."
Karzai's second five-year term ends in 2014. The Afghan constitution bans him from seeking a third term.
A reporter asked Karzai about rumors that his older brother, Qayum, would run to replace him as president in elections, which are slated for 2014. One of their other brothers, Mahmood, told reporters this week that Qayum, a former Afghan parliamentarian and long-time businessman in the United States, would be a candidate.
"I heard that yesterday my brother, Mahmood Karzai, announced that Qayum Karzai is a candidate. Qayum hasn't said anything yet to me," Karzai said. "Who is going to be a candidate or not - that is a very big issue. There might be lots of candidates.'"
"Personally, I haven't thought about any candidate, or specifically about the candidacy of my bother."
Separately, explosions in north and central Afghanistan killed seven people on Tuesday as insurgents worked to undermine the country's weak government by stepping up attacks. Security forces appeared to be the targets in at least one of the attacks, but as frequently happens in the Afghan war, the dead were civilians.
A suicide bomber on a bicycle detonated his explosives, killing two civilians and wounding five Afghan policemen. The Ministry of Interior said a small child was among those killed at a bazaar in Chahar Bolak district.
Five other civilians died when their minibus hit a roadside bomb in Wardak province in central Afghanistan. Provincial spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said a 3-year-old child was among those killed in Sayd Abad district.
The U.N. said last year was the deadliest on record for civilians in the Afghan war, with 3,021 killed. The number of Afghan civilians killed dropped 36 percent in the first four months of this year compared with last year, but the U.N. laments that too many civilians are still being caught up in violence.
Anti-government forces, including the Taliban and other militants, were responsible for 79 percent of civilian casualties in the first four months of this year, the U.N. said. Afghan and foreign forces were responsible for 9 percent. It was unclear who was to blame for the remaining 12 percent.
In the south, a NATO service member was killed in a roadside bomb attack, the coalition said. No other information was disclosed. So far this year, 191 NATO service members have been killed in Afghanistan, including more than 130 Americans.
Four other civilians and three Afghan soldiers died Monday evening in another roadside bomb incident the western province of Farah.
Ghawisdin, the top official in Pusht Rod district who uses only one name, said the soldiers died when their vehicle hit the explosives.
"After the explosion, nearby villagers ran to the explosion site to help the injured," Ghawisdin said. "The wounded soldiers thought they were being ambushed. They thought they were going to be captured or killed, so they opened fire on the villagers, killing four including the mullah of the mosque."
In Sangin district of Helmand province in the south, Taliban fighters attacked an Afghan Local Police unit, a village-level fighting force overseen by the Ministry of Interior.
Two policemen were killed and six others were wounded, said Sharefullah, the top official in the district who also uses just one name. He said 0 Taliban fighters were killed in the attack.