After Afghan child killed, coalition in damage control

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan apologized Friday for mistakenly killing a 2-year-old boy during an airstrike, the latest crisis to confront U.S. officials hoping to finalize a long-term security agreement between the two nations.

Late Thursday, Mr. Karzai had blasted the U.S. military for the death and accused coalition troops serving in Afghanistan of "oppressions." Within hours, U.S. and coalition military leaders were rushing to try to control the fallout of the strike, which also wounded two women.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, called Mr. Karzai to apologize personally. The international coalition also issued a statement saying it "deeply regrets" the incident.

The civilian casualties couldn't have come at a worse time for U.S. diplomats, who have watched with dismay over the past week as Mr. Karzai appeared increasingly dismissive of administration plans to keep as many as 10,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan after 2014.

In a series of public statements, Mr. Karzai has insisted that he may wait until next year to decide on the matter, even though the administration is urging him to sign the pact by the end of the year. If he does not, administration officials say, they will begin preparations for withdrawing all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year.

The death of the child further complicates the already-strained relationship, giving Mr. Karzai yet more grounds to cite in his quest for concessions.

Mr. Karzai said a suspected U.S. drone fired into a house shortly before noon Thursday in the southern province of Helmand. The coalition acknowledged the incident Friday morning, saying a child was apparently killed during an operation targeting "an insurgent riding a motorbike." A senior coalition official said the child was on the road when the explosion occurred and denied Mr. Karzai's claim that a house had been targeted.

The intended target, who was also killed, was a "mid-level Taliban commander who had been involved in attacks" on coalition troops and was "organizing and facilitating lethal aid to insurgents in the area," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under coalition ground rules.

During his call to Mr. Karzai, Gen. Dunford pledged to launch an immediate inquiry. But Helmand's provincial governor and other local officials denounced the attack, saying it was just one of two coalition strikes in the province Thursday that had resulted in a civilian death.

Abdul Bari Barakzai, head of the Helmand provincial council, said a "farmer in a field" was also killed by a suspected U.S. drone strike Thursday. "These attacks will have a very bad impact on the signing" of the pact, Mr. Barakzai said. "People nationally will rise up and say, 'We expect [U.S. forces] to protect us from our neighbors, but instead you are bombing and killing us.' "

A coalition official confirmed that a second "precision strike" had occurred in the area, but said it killed an "insurgent." The official added that "there were no other casualties."

A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Kabul declined to comment, and there was no immediate reaction Friday from the State Department or the White House.

Even before Thursday's airstrikes, however, the administration had been struggling to persuade Mr. Karzai to quickly sign the accord authorizing U.S. forces to remain in Afghanistan after 2014 to help train and advise the Afghan military.

Mr. Karzai has been seeking to reopen negotiations with the administration, saying he needs additional assurances that the United States will not meddle in Afghan elections next year, will cease military raids on Afghan homes and will help start peace talks between Mr. Karzai's government and Taliban insurgents. To facilitate the talks, he has demanded that the United States release 17 Afghan prisoners from the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Now, Mr. Karzai has added a reduction of U.S. airstrikes to his list of demands.

In some ways, Thursday's strikes appeared to come as a direct challenge to Mr. Karzai. Starting Sunday and continuing throughout the first part of the week, Mr. Karzai or his spokesman had repeatedly stressed that the pact would not be signed so long as raids on Afghan homes or civilian casualties continued. "For years, our innocent people have become victims of the war under the name of terrorism, and they have had no safety in their homes," he said Thursday.

But observers say Mr. Karzai's growing demands concerning U.S. military behavior could soon force commanders to reconsider their post-2014 mission. As part of the security pact, which allows for 15,000 foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan, the U.S. military also plans to conduct a limited number of counter-terrorism missions in the country.

"If he represents what the majority of Afghans want, it's going to be hard to maintain those kind of missions," said Boston University professor Robert Loftis, a former diplomat who led the George W. Bush administration's initial effort to reach a status of forces agreement with Iraq in 2008. "He's playing a dangerous game here, and he may convince, if not the [Obama] administration, the American public, 'Hey, why are we doing this?' "


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