In a stark warning to U.S. forces, the Afghan government said it will try to regulate the presence of U.S. troops and their use of airstrikes, while the U.N. on Tuesday announced that "convincing evidence" exists that an American-led operation killed 90 civilians.
The U.N. sent in a team of investigators, who relied solely on villagers' statements in alleging the American-led operation in the western province of Herat on Friday killed 60 children and 30 adults. The U.S. military stood by its account, that 25 militants and five civilians were killed in the operation.
"I don't have any information that would suggest that our military commanders in Afghanistan don't believe, still, that this was a legitimate strike on a Taliban target," Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said in Washington.
The U.N. allegation comes a day after President Hamid Karzai's government said it will try to put more controls on the way American and NATO troops operate in response to a series of airstrikes and other operations this summer that have caused the deaths of scores of civilians.
Negotiations over use of airstrikes
Afghanistan's Council of Ministers ordered the ministries of defense and foreign affairs to open negotiations with the U.S. and NATO over the use of airstrikes, house searches and the detentions of Afghan civilians. It also called for a "status of force" agreement to regulate the troops' presence.
Afghanistan's effort to rein in foreign forces is similar to steps taken by the Iraqi government, which has demanded a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and greater control of U.S. operations until their departure.
The U.N.'s allegation of such a large number of civilian deaths could set the U.S., U.N. and the Afghan government on a collision course over the use of military force in Afghan villages, where international troops battle Taliban and al-Qaida militants daily.
Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, said the Russians were raising the issue of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan with the U.N. Security Council.
Afghan officials also say that scores of civilians — between 76 and 90 — were killed in Herat province on Friday.
Casualties a source of friction
Civilian casualties have long been a major source of friction between President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers. Afghan officials say civilian deaths create a rift between the government and the people that Taliban and other anti-government forces use as leverage to turn villagers away from the government.
According to an Associated Press tally, 705 civilians have been killed this year: 536 by militants, and 158 by international forces; 11 civilians have died in cross fire. The numbers do not include figures from the Herat battle and likely do not account for all civilian deaths this year.
U.S. and NATO officials say they take great care in their targeting but also accuse the militants of hiding in civilian homes and using Afghans as human shields.
Another factor, diplomats in Kabul say, is that Karzai is running for re-election next year. Blaming foreigners for the ills afflicting the country is a sure way to win popular support.
Anti-foreigner sentiment has been rising over the years here, partly because of civilian deaths but also because many Afghans do not see the benefits of billions of dollars in aid that have poured into the country since the ouster of the Taliban in late 2001.
Karzai's spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, said Tuesday that the ministers' decision was made after Afghan officials "lost patience" with foreign forces, and the killings and detentions of civilians during raids in remote villages.
"We do not want international forces to leave Afghanistan until the time our security institutions are able to defend Afghanistan independently," Hamidzada told reporters.
But the presence of those forces has to be based "within the framework of Afghan law with respect to international law," he said.
Hamidzada said circumstances have changed. "Afghanistan of 2001 is different from Afghanistan today," he said. He said the government has not discussed any timetable for the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan.
Air Force Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said the legal framework for the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan was established in a 2003 agreement between Kabul and Washington. Done via an exchange of diplomatic notes, the pact is considered a bilateral agreement and is like a status of forces agreement, Ryder said.
Claims of civilian deaths
In a statement Tuesday, the U.N. put its weight behind the Afghan government claim of civilian deaths in Herat, saying its investigators "found convincing evidence, based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, and others, that some 90 civilians were killed, including 60 children, 15 women and 15 men."
The U.N. did not provide photos or evidence that its investigators who went to the scene saw any graves or that any militants were among those killed. Instead it relied on statements of villagers, local officials and eyewitnesses.
Dan McNorton, a spokesman for the U.N. in Kabul, said the world body's investigation is ongoing.
The U.N. said that "residents were able to confirm the number of casualties, including names, age and gender of the victims."
"The destruction from aerial bombardment was clearly evident with some 7-8 houses having been totally destroyed and serious damage to many others," the statement said.
The top U.S. coalition commander has ordered an investigation.
"We welcome getting all the facts on the table," said Corina Sanders, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman. "We take civilian casualties very seriously."