KABUL, (Reuters) – The U.S. military acknowledged on Saturday that air strikes in western Afghanistan this week had killed civilians and Afghan President Hamid Karzai put the death toll at up to 130.
In a joint statement with the Afghan government, U.S. forces said non-combatants were among the dead but it was not possible to determine how many because the bodies had been buried.
Karzai said he had received an official update putting the number of innocent casualties from the strikes, which hit crowded homes in two villages in Farah province, as high as 130. If that toll was confirmed it would be the deadliest single incident affecting Afghan civilians since U.S.-led forces started battling the Taliban in 2001.
The deaths in Farah have inflamed Afghan anger about the impact of air strikes, an issue which is already poisoning ties between Kabul and Washington. It overshadowed a meeting between Karzai and U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington this week.
The Afghan leader went on U.S. television on Friday to call for an end to the bombardments within his borders. “The air strikes are not acceptable,” Karzai told CNN. “Terrorism is not in Afghan villages, not in Afghan homes. And you cannot defeat terrorists by air strikes.” Obama had expressed “sorrows and apologies” over the deaths in their White House summit, he said.
The joint U.S.-Afghan statement suggested Taliban fighters may have worsened the toll by using civilians as human shields.
“Reports also indicate that Taliban fighters deliberately forced villagers into houses from which they then attacked Afghan national security forces and coalition forces,” it said.
U.S. military officials have said they think the toll might be lower than Karzai’s estimate or a figure of 147 victims provided by villagers, without giving further details.
The delay in calculating the toll may fuel anger among Afghans who have long resented Western forces’ handling of reported civilian deaths.
U.S. and NATO commanders have put new drills in place in recent months, responding more quickly, coordinating their investigations with Afghan authorities, apologising publicly and offering compensation.
The Farah incident shows further changes are needed, critics said.
“The procedures for protecting civilians and verifying intelligence before launching attacks are clearly not working and must be thoroughly reviewed again,” said Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.
According to the United Nations, U.S., NATO and Afghan government troops killed 828 civilians last year, nearly a third more than the previous year. Air strikes accounted for 552.
Analysts say Western troops are spread relatively thinly on the ground, making them overly reliant on air support.
The risk of faulty intelligence, the use of civilians as human shields and the size of bombs dropped in air strikes make for higher non-combatant death tolls than in ground operations.
Karzai called for greater support for Afghan institutions and the Afghan security forces to replace bombing raids. “You deal with that by using Afghan forces in the villages, using the villagers, using the Afghan government institutions, using daytime operations, using daytime search operations conducted by the Afghan forces,” he said.
Experts said air power was a major strategic advantage for the U.S.-led forces. “The US and NATO command are unlikely to rule out the use of one of the most important and effective weapons systems,” said Tim Ripley, an analyst for Jane’s Defence publications.
“Given that they are still thin on the ground, they are going to have to rely on air power to get their troops out of trouble.”