Underscoring the continued threat to civilians in Afghanistan, a drone strike in an eastern province killed up to 16 people, Afghan officials said Sunday, while a Taliban assault in another province killed four intelligence officers and wounded more than 120 civilians.
The drone strike occurred Saturday afternoon in the Watapur district of Kunar province, a stronghold for the insurgency ensconced in hard-to-access mountainous terrain. Afghan officials said the drone was targeting four insurgents who were picked up along the road by a truck with civilians in it, though reports differed on the number of passengers. Women and children were among the dead, the officials said.
"The insurgents often force local drivers to give them rides in their trucks," said the Kunar police chief, Abdul Habib Saidkhail.
Coalition officials confirmed the strike, which they said killed 10 insurgents. Officials said they had no initial reports of civilian casualties, but that they would investigate.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the drone strike Sunday, calling the attack on women and children against all international norms. The president did not appear to immediately wade into the debate over drones in the short statement.
The Taliban attack occurred Sunday morning in the capital of Wardak province, MaIdan Shahr, where a vehicle packed with explosives detonated outside the Afghan intelligence headquarters. Five insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles then tried to breach the building, said Gen. Jamil Khan, the deputy police chief of Wardak province, but they were quickly killed.
At least four agents for the National Directorate of Security were killed in the attack, as well as a police officer. The bomb, which rocked the area around the provincial directorate offices, spread shards of shrapnel glass and wood into the surrounding area, wounding a number of civilians, a spokesman for the governor's office said.
Wardak and Kunar have long been hotbeds of the insurgency during the U.S.-led war and now that Afghan forces are mostly in control of security. Parts of Wardak, particularly along the main highway in districts like Sayadabad, have been plagued by violence. Parts of Kunar have grown safer, but on the whole the province remains a magnet for foreign insurgents crossing over from Pakistan.
While the conflict in Wardak has essentially been a ground fight, Kunar has far less hospitable terrain, making the use of air power more attractive and raising the risk of civilian casualties. With Kunar's rugged terrain, a combination of steep mountains covered in dense foliage, positioning troops is exceptionally hard.
With the withdrawal of many of its troops from the area, the international coalition is now forced to rely on air power to combat the insurgency. The U.S. drone campaign seeks to kill insurgent leaders, especially in Kunar, one of the few provinces where members of al-Qaida remain in hiding.
"The major challenge for our security forces is the presence of foreign fighters in Kunar because they are well trained and equipped and support the Afghan Taliban," said Col. Hayatullah Aqtash, the 2nd Brigade commander. "That's why the drones are usually used to attack them."
In Kunar, civilian casualties have been a sticking point for the coalition forces. In February, an airstrike in Kunar killed as many as 11 civilians, prompting Mr. Karzai to forbid Afghan forces from turning to NATO or American forces to conduct airstrikes. In April, another airstrike in Kunar was thought to have killed at least 10 children after a foiled attempt to capture a Taliban commander led to a sustained gunbattle between special forces troops and insurgents.
Conflicting reports about the exact cause of the civilian deaths muddied the blame, but the use of air support was still enough to stoke the ire of the government, which denounced the deaths of innocent Afghans. More broadly, the coalition has drastically reduced the number of civilian casualties stemming from airstrikes, after adopting more rigid rules for such attacks.
Still, civilians have borne the brunt of the violence in this decadelong war, and as coalition troops continue their transition away from combat roles, the trend appears to be getting worse. The number of civilians killed or wounded in the first six months of 2013 rose by 23 percent compared with the same period a year before, with most of the deaths attributed to the insurgency, according to a United Nations report.