x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Karzai warns Nato: 'Stop bombing homes or be branded an occupying force'

Military analysts say Nato troops are in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate, which does not give the Afghan government authority to outlaw strikes.

KABUL // Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president,  yesterday ordered Nato to halt airstrikes on Afghan homes or risk being branded occupiers.

"If it continues, then their presence will change from a war against terrorism to an occupying force," Mr Karzai said.

"Afghan history is witness to how the Afghans deal with occupying forces. Bombing Afghan houses is banned."

A Nato spokeswoman in Brussels said attacks on homes in Afghanistan were necessary and would continue in co-operation with Afghan security forces.

Despite Mr Karzai's threat of unilateral action against Nato forces if airstrikes continue, military analysts said Nato troops were in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate, which does not give the Afghan government authority to outlaw strikes.

Nato says airstrikes are a key weapon against Taliban insurgents. "Under the UN mandate, troops have the right to do their job and conduct any kind of attack, as long as the killing of civilians is not deliberate," the former Afghan general and military analyst Helaluddin Helal said.

"It is not realistic for Karzai to make this request."

The words were Mr Karzai's harshest for the US-led foreign forces that have operated in Afghanistan since toppling the Taliban government in 2001. They come on the heels of a string of incidents in which residents, Afghan officials and Mr Karzai have all accused Nato forces of killing scores of civilians in errant airstrikes.

The most recent was on Saturday night in the Nowzad district of the volatile Helmand province, where provincial officials say two women and 12 children were killed in a Nato strike on two homes.

Nato says the strike killed nine civilians, and was in response to a Taliban insurgent attack on a nearby base that killed a US Marine.

On Sunday Mr Karzai gave his "last warning" on airstrikes by Nato forces.

The governor of the remote Nuristan province said this month that dozens of civilians and Afghan policemen had been killed in a Nato airstrike in Doab district. Reports had said the district, in a mountainous area on the Pakistan border, had been overrun by the Taliban.

Nato said it was dispatching a team to investigate the bombing.

A Nato spokeswoman, Major Sunset Belinksy, said yesterday: "Coalition forces constantly strive to reduce the chance of civilian casualties and damage to structure. But when the insurgents use civilians as a shield and put our forces in a position where their only option is to use airstrikes, then they will take that option."

About 150,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are in Afghanistan helping the government to fight a Taliban insurgency.

But the decade-long foreign military presence and increasing numbers of civilian casualties are turning many Afghans against the war. "The foreigners killed my cousin in an airstrike, and they never came to investigate or ask us any questions," said Taza Gul, a resident of Sarobi district in Kabul province.

He says his cousin, who worked for the Afghan government at district level, was killed in an airstrike in 2008. "We don't believe they care, they do whatever they want."

Nato troops are supposed to transfer security responsibilities to Afghan army and police in seven key areas of Afghanistan from next month, as part of a force reduction in which all US and foreign combat troops will withdraw by 2014.

But Mr Helal says Afghan forces will still be incapable of maintaining air support for ground troops.

"The Afghan air force is particularly weak right now, and our forces still cannot go to an area to independently conduct an operation," he said. "We need air support from the US and from Nato."

According to the UN, civilian deaths are on the rise in Afghanistan, up by 15 per cent from 2009 to 2010 as Nato boosts troop levels to uproot Taliban fighters in key provinces.

Taliban insurgents and other anti-government groups are responsible for most civilian deaths, however, causing 75 per cent of casualties in 2010, the UN says. Nato was responsible for 16 per cent of civilian deaths in 2010, and 9 per cent could not be attributed to any party.

ecunningham@thenational.ae