NATO Strike Magnifies Divide on Afghan War
By STEPHEN FARRELL and RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.
New york times, September 4, 2009
KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — A NATO airstrike on Friday exploded two fuel tankers that had been hijacked by the Taliban, setting off competing claims about how many among the scores of dead were civilians and raising questions about whether the strike violated tightened rules on the use of aerial bombardment.
Afghan officials said that up to 90 people were killed by the strike near Kunduz, a northern city where the trucks got stuck after militants tried to drive them across a river late Thursday night.
The strike came at a time of intense debate over the Afghan war in both the United States and Europe and after a heavily disputed election that has left Afghanistan tense and, at least temporarily, without credible leaders.
Though there seemed little doubt some of the dead were militants, it was unclear how many of the dead were civilians, and with anger at the foreign forces high here, NATO ordered an immediate investigation.
Recently, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American and NATO commander here, severely restricted the use of airstrikes, arguing that America risked losing the war if it did not reduce civilian casualties.
Underscoring his concern, on Friday he recorded a video message, translated into Dari and Pashto, to be released to Afghan news organizations.
The general began by greeting “the great people of Afghanistan, salaam aleikum.”
“As commander of the International Security Assistance Force, nothing is more important than the safety and protection of the Afghan people,” General McChrystal said in the brief message. “I take this possible loss of life or injury to innocent Afghans very seriously.”
General McChrystal said he had ordered the investigation “into the reasons and results of this attack, which I will share with the Afghan people.”
Two 14-year-old boys and one 10-year-old boy were admitted to the regional hospital here in Kunduz, along with a 16-year-old who later died. Mahboubullah Sayedi, a spokesman for the Kunduz provincial governor, said most of the estimated 90 dead were militants, judging by the number of charred pieces of Kalashnikov rifles found. But he said civilians were also killed.
In explaining the civilian deaths, military officials speculated that local people were conscripted by the Taliban to unload the fuel from the tankers, which were stuck near a river several miles from the nearest villages.
But some people wounded by the strike said that they had gone to the scene with jerrycans after other people had run through their villages saying that free fuel was available.
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