KABUL, Afghanistan — Critics expressed worries Monday that a presidential order barring Afghan security forces from requesting international airstrikes during operations in residential areas could hobble government troops even as they prepare to take over full responsibility for security in the country from international forces.
Underscoring the troops' dependence on warplanes and helicopters, the U.S.-led coalition said Monday that an airstrike last week killed an Afghan soldier-turned-insurgent who was feted by the Taliban for killing an American soldier during an insider attack last year.
President Hamid Karzai officially issued the order on Monday, two days after promising to do so amid anger over a NATO airstrike requested by the national intelligence service that local officials said killed at least 10 civilians and four insurgents.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, said he believes the American-led NATO coalition can operate effectively despite the ban.
Afghans currently lead about 90 percent of military operations nationwide and will fully take charge in the spring, a key step in the plan to withdraw U.S. and other foreign combat forces by the end of 2014. However, they remain heavily dependent on the coalition for air support and medical evacuations in areas where the Taliban and other militants live among the population and often enjoy local support.
The ban 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-16s, tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons.
Some analysts said the ban on airstrikes against residential areas would limit the Afghan forces' effectiveness and could prompt the savvy Taliban to use it by increasingly taking shelter among civilians in cities and villages.
"We don't have the ability to support our forces on the ground," said former Afghan Gen. Amrullah Aman.
"These insurgents are using Afghan houses as bunkers and innocent children are being killed," he added. "The insurgents will hear that the decree has been issued and feel safe."
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.
The U.S.-led military coalition said last June that it would only use airstrikes as 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 an airstrike hit two neighboring houses, killing five children, four women and one man in one and four insurgents in another in northeastern Kunar province, according to local officials.
Dunford met with Karzai and expressed "his personal condolences for any civilians who may have died or been injured as a result of the operation."
But the Afghan leader, who is serving his last term and is due to step down after elections in 2014, said he was outraged when the US commander told him that the NDS, Afghanistan's intelligence agency, had requested last week's strike in Kunar.
On Sunday, Dunford told reporters that Karzai's decision was in line with a tactical directive issued last year by his predecessor, Marine Gen. John Allen. The coalition can still carry out airstrikes on its own accord.
"There are other ways we can support our Afghan partners other than air ordnance," Dunford said without elaborating.
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.
Former Gen. Sayed Hussain Anwari said the airstrike successes aren't worth the deaths of innocent Afghans.
"Unfortunately there's no clear front line in the fight against the Taliban. It's a guerrilla war," said Anwari, also an ex-governor of Kabul and Herat provinces. "But also civilian casualties are unacceptable for everybody."
Earlier Monday, the U.S.-led coalition said that a former Afghan soldier and an accomplice blamed in the death of an American soldier had been killed last Wednesday in an airstrike in Kunar province's Ghaziabad district.
The man identified as Mahmood was thought responsible for the May 11 insider killing in Kunar of U.S. Army 1st Lt. Alejo Thompson, a 30-year-old father of two from Yuma, Arizona. He was based at Fort Carson, Colorado.
Mahmood, in his early 20's and who went only by one name later fled. The coalition said he had an associate named Rashid who was "a former Afghan National Army soldier who facilitated and assisted with insider attack planning and execution."
A man named Mahmood was highlighted in a Taliban video that showed him being welcomed as a hero with flowers around his neck while entering an insurgent camp. 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.
So far this year, there has been only one insider attack. 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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