KABUL, Afghanistan -- An American military airstrike in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border was reported to have killed 18 people, including at least one senior Taliban commander but also women and children, raising the thorny issue of civilian casualties for the third time in roughly a week.
The attack occurred Saturday during a joint mission of Afghan and American Special Operations forces that were targeting a high-profile Taliban commander in Kunar Province, Afghan officials said. After several hours of fierce fighting with insurgents, the American forces called in an airstrike to level the home of the commander, Ali Khan, officials said.
In addition to killing Mr. Khan and about four other Taliban fighters, at least 10 children died in the strike, and at least 5 women were wounded, said Abdul Zahir Safi, the governor of the Shigal district, where the attack occurred. Afghan officials said they believed that the women and children were relatives of the Taliban commander.
Civilian casualties have long been a sticking point between President Hamid Karzai and his Western allies. Harsh criticism by Mr. Karzai led to stronger rules on the use of airstrikes by American forces last year, effectively halting such attacks on population centers and homes. Civilian casualties at the hands of foreign forces have dropped dramatically since then.
Mr. Karzai basically prohibited his own armed forces from requesting NATO airstrike support after an episode in the Shigal district in February that killed 10 civilians.
On Sunday, Mr. Karzai's office issued a statement criticizing the latest deaths and called for an investigation into the civilian deaths in Shigal.
The civilian casualties on Saturday added to the death toll from two episodes in Ghazni Province in the past eight days, in which four police officers were killed during a NATO airstrike and two children died in a helicopter attack. A spokesman for the coalition forces said all accusations of civilian casualties remain under investigation. And military officials reiterated that all three recent strikes were called in by international forces rather than Afghan troops.
American military commanders have insisted that airstrikes can be crucial to protecting troops' lives, especially as Afghan forces increasingly take the lead on security operations.
"Government officials might tell you that Afghan and foreign forces only have the right to use airstrikes in unpopulated areas, but in practice it is different," said Gen. Amrullah Aman, a military analyst in Kabul. "Americans will use their air support whenever they need it, no matter where it is and no matter how many presidential decrees are issued."
Places like Kunar Province and nearby Nuristan Province, which have particularly rugged terrain, make airstrikes a weapon of choice because of the difficulty in moving ground troops.
"Neither the Afghan government forces nor the Americans have any presence in the area where the airstrike has happened," said Hajji Sakhi Mohammed, a member of Parliament who represents Kunar Province. "The insurgents have turned the area into a hotbed of their activities, which have also attracted a lot foreign fighters from the other side of the border."
The area is considered a Taliban stronghold, and it is a crucial route for insurgents traveling between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Afghan and NATO forces killed another commander, Shah Pour, in the attack there in February that prompted Mr. Karzai's outcry over airstrikes and civilian casualties. Another key commander in the area, Mullah Dadullah, was killed in a joint operation in August 2012.
Fighting has recently intensified in Afghanistan as the weather has warmed up. On Saturday, a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of Afghan and United States officials in Zabul Province, killing three American soldiers and two civilians, including Anne Smedinghoff, a 25-year-old diplomat in the public affairs division of the State Department. Another employee remains in critical condition.
In an emotional eulogy to the staff and families at the American Consulate in Istanbul, Secretary of State John Kerry talked on Sunday about Ms. Smedinghoff, who was from Illinois.
Mr. Kerry said Ms. Smedinghoff had previously served in Venezuela. He deplored the "harsh contradiction" of her death, which occurred as the Americans were bringing books to a school.
"The folks who want to kill people, and that is all they want to do, are scared of knowledge," Mr. Kerry said. "They want to shut the doors, and they don't want people to make their choices about their future."
That attack, the deadliest for Americans in Afghanistan this year, was preceded last week by one of the worst Taliban attacks since the start of the war, when more than 44 Afghan civilians were killed in a complex assault in Farah Province. More than 100 people were wounded in the attack, which involved a number of Taliban gunmen who raided a government compound, held hostages in the basement and later shot them all.
Sangar Rahimi and Habib Zahori contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Michael R. Gordon from Istanbul.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.