Afghan chief tackles human rights

Would ban airstrikes by foreign forces, condemns torture

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- President Hamid Karzai said Saturday that he would issue a decree forbidding his military forces from turning to NATO or American forces to conduct airstrikes and condemned the use of torture on detainees by his security forces.

He made his comments in a speech at the Afghan National Military Academy in Kabul. It was the first time he had dwelt at such length and with such passion on human rights.

His proposed ban on Afghan troops' calling in airstrikes came after a joint Afghan-NATO attack last week in Kunar province, in eastern Afghanistan, that killed 10 civilians, four women, one man and five children, according to local officials.

Mr. Karzai said Gen. Joseph Dunford, the commanding general of the international coalition forces fighting the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan, told him that the airstrike had been requested by the National Directorate of Security, the country's intelligence service. The attack took place in the Shigal District of the province, an area where two known Taliban commanders were visiting family members, Afghan officials have said.

"Our NDS in their own country calls foreigners to assist them and bombard four or five al-Qaida or Taliban," said Mr. Karzai.

"It is very regrettable to hear this," he added. "You are representing Afghan pride. How do you call for an airstrike from foreigners on your people?"

The issue of civilian casualties in the war on the Taliban has long vexed Mr. Karzai and has been a major point of contention with U.S. and NATO troops. New rules instituted by commanders from the International Security Assistance Force have minimized the loss of life, and the coalition has all but stopped air attacks on populated areas and homes. The result has been a dramatic drop in civilian casualties caused by foreign forces.

Nevertheless, Afghan troops, who lack their own air support, still turn to foreign forces for help when in pitched battles with the Taliban and other insurgents. It was not clear whether there would be exceptions to Mr. Karzai's decree, but he was clearly dismayed that his own forces would be employing the very techniques he had worked so hard to persuade the West to abandon.

In an unusual move, the Afghan president also publicly acknowledged that torture was a problem in Afghan detention centers and pledged to halt it. In the past, the government has largely deflected charges of torture raised by human rights organizations, contending that any abuse was the work of a few bad actors.

But after a United Nations report released in January detailed abuses or torture at a number of detention sites around the country, Mr. Karzai took a closer and more independent look at the complaints.

He appointed a delegation to investigate the report's validity, and when it confirmed many aspects of the report, he ordered the security ministries to implement the team's recommendations. He reiterated that order on Saturday. They include prosecuting perpetrators of torture, giving detainees access to defense lawyers, providing medical treatment for detainees who are ill or have been beaten, and videotaping all interrogations.

"Not only have foreigners tormented and punished Afghans, but our people have been terrorized and punished by our own sons too," Mr. Karzai said. "The U.N. report showed that even after 10 years, our people are tortured and mistreated in prisons."

The U.N. human rights office here emphasized the importance of Mr. Karzai's attention to the issue.

"It is encouraging that the president appears to be personally taking the issue of human rights of all Afghans seriously," said Georgette Gagnon, the office's director of human rights. She added that the government should act immediately on the delegation's recommendations. "We urge them to do so without delay," she said.

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