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US commander supports Karzai in limiting airstrikes

Move could be blow to Afghan forces

KABUL - The new top commander in Afghanistan said he supports President Hamid Karzai’s intent to ban Afghan forces from calling in foreign air support, a move that will leave already under-equipped Afghan troops even more vulnerable.

“This is a sovereign nation,” Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said at a meeting with journalists Sunday. “The president is exercising his sovereignty.”

Karzai’s decree, to be issued Sunday, came in the wake of an airstrike Tuesday in eastern Afghanistan that local officials said killed 10 civilians as well as four militants.

Losing NATO air support could be a crippling blow to the Afghan military, whose air force is little more than a collection of Soviet helicopters and small propeller planes. Afghans themselves have virtually no close air support capabilities and it was not immediately clear if Karzai had an alternative plan for protecting Afghan soldiers in the field.

One of the biggest worries expressed by Afghan commanders and soldiers is the loss of foreign close air support after the 2014 deadline for all foreign combat troops to leave Afghanistan. Now that day appears to have come early.

The decision might not only increase casualties and lower morale among the Afghan forces, but is likely to embolden insurgents, who fear NATO air power, said political analyst and former Afghan Army general Noorulhaq Olumi.

“This is a completely incorrect and emotional decision,” he said.

Without air support, though, Afghans may need to rely more on artillery, which is even less accurate and could potentially cause more civilian casualties.

Dunford said the coalition would continue to support the Afghan forces, but did not specify how NATO forces would make up for the loss of air power.

“We’ll support the Afghans in the way we can within that context”he said of the air support ban.

Civilian casualties have inflamed tensions between Karzai and the NATO-led military coalition in Afghanistan, though casualties caused by coalition forces have been falling, according to a report from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in August.

A more recent report from a different UN agency, though, slammed the coalition for airstrikes that have resulted in children being killed, a claim military officials rejected. Coalition officials still have not confirmed civilians were killed in last week’s airstrike, though Dunford did issue a carefully worded release conveying condolences for any civilians who “may have died or been injured” in the Kunar operation, without actually acknowledging that civilians were killed.

“I assured the president that I shared his perspective on civilian casualties and we have made extraordinary progress in reducing civilian casualties,” Dunford said Sunday, adding that he and Karzai still must “work through the details” of the decree.

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

druzinh@estripes.osd.mil
Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

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