KABUL, Afghanistan — For much of last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been locked in a long-distance confrontation with U.S. politicians and diplomats over a proposed post-2014 security agreement between Afghanistan and the United States.
Today in Kabul, the dispute turned to the emotional issue of Afghan civilian casualties at the hands of the U.S. military. The Afghan president accused U.S. special operations forces of killing two civilians in a night raid on a civilian home Tuesday. That drew an angry response — and heated denial — from American commanders.
In a statement Friday night on the Afghan presidential website, Karzai “condemned in the strongest terms an operation of American soldiers that killed two innocent civilians” in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.
The website attributed the information to the governor of Nangarhar. The Dari-language post said: “American special forces conducted an operation on a house of two brothers named Shaakrullah and Roshan in Bati Kot District and martyred those two,” identified as a plumber and a mason.
The post said residents asked the government to prevent such incidents in the future or risk losing local support.
The American response was unusually swift and pointed.
“It is unfortunate that some people would use allegations of civilian casualties for political purposes,” a U.S. official with the NATO-led coalition, the International Security and Assistance Force, or ISAF, said in an interview today, speaking on condition of anonymity while discussing sensitive political matters.
The official said the operation was led by about 100 Afghan security force members accompanied by 17 ISAF military advisers. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with ISAF policy, said the force was fired on as it entered a courtyard in Bati Kot on Tuesday night and returned fire, killing two armed insurgents.
ISAF released a statement today that read in part:
“In response to a statement posted on the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s presidential website . . . during an Afghan-led operation with coalition advisors, Afghan National Security Forces and a coalition advisor engaged and killed two armed insurgents after being fired upon.”
Asked whether any of the advisors were American, the ISAF official said it was ISAF policy not to identify the nationalities of troops involved in such operations. The official said the Afghan allegation of a unilateral U.S. mission was flat wrong; ISAF has said Afghan forces took over the lead in combat operations during the summer.
The ISAF official said there were no civilian casualties in the incident.
The exchange of sharp words only contributed to an increasingly poisonous relationship between Karzai and the United States. Karzai told an Afghan gathering Thursday, speaking of the United States: “I don’t trust them and they don’t trust me.”
That was evident today, as suspicions and recriminations were still swirling over Karzai’s announcement Thursday that he would delay the signing of the proposed 10-year security agreement until next April.
A U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said today of the civilian casualties allegation: “Misleading statements like this one do not help in facilitating the signing of the BSA,” or Bilateral Security Agreement, which the official described as crucial to the security of Afghanistan.
Niyamatullah Nurzia, governor of Bati Kot district, said two male civilians were killed during “a joint military operation by Afghan special forces and foreigners.”
“Based on our information from people in the area, these were civilians who died,” Nurzia said in a telephone interview from the district. Nurzia said the joint force detained two armed men who are not from the area, and confiscated an AK-47 automatic rifle.
For his part, Karzai let his presidential website express his outrage: “While condemning this operation, President Karzai said that he has been asking for a halt in such operations on Afghan houses for many years.”
On Thursday, Karzai told the Afghan gathering, known as a loya jirga, or grand council, that delegates should carefully debate raids on Afghan homes—and the very presence of U.S. forces after 2014 — before voting on whether to endorse the security pact. Their advisory vote is expected Sunday.
The issue of civilian casualties, along with U.S. demands for American legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops accused of crimes while serving in Afghanistan, held up a preliminary agreement on the security pact. The issue seemed to be resolved Wednesday, when Secretary of State John F. Kerry announced that the two sides had finally agreed on the text of the 24-page document.
That was followed hours later by a letter from President Barack Obama to Karzai. Obama pledged that “U.S. forces shall not enter Afghan homes for the purposes of military operations, except under extraordinary circumstances involving urgent risk of life and limb to U.S. nationals.”
The letter had been requested by Karzai. It seemed to satisfy the Afghan president, who told the loya jirga Thursday that the Obama letter would be attached to the security agreement. But then Karzai stunned U.S. officials — including the top U.S. diplomat and military commander, who were in the audience — by saying the Afghans would wait until the their presidential election in April to sign the agreement.
U.S. officials had expected Karzai to sign quickly, assuming it is passed by the loya jirga and the Afghan parliament, which also must approve the deal.
Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said the Afghan president suggested to Kerry in a phone conversation Tuesday that a decision be delayed until the election of a new president in April. Faizi said Kerry refused.
The U.S. on Friday gave Karzai a deadline of the end of the year to sign the pact. Washington says the Pentagon and NATO need time to plan for post-2014 military arrangements while also withdrawing combat troops and tons of vehicles, gear and equipment from Afghanistan.
The agreement, if signed, would permit the U.S. to send military advisors after 2014 to train and equip Afghan security forces, along with special operations forces for counter-terrorism missions. Obama would determine the number of troops.
Faizi, the Karzai spokesman, said today that the Nangarhar governor and local Afghans disputed the U.S. version of events. He told The Times that the governor, along with about 150 local residents, had asked American officials to discuss the issue with them.
Karzai is expected to have more to say on civilian casualties and the security agreement when he addresses the closing of the loya jirga on Sunday.