Afghanistan Wants Answers on U.S. Air Strike

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered an inquiry into a U.S. air strike on Sunday that killed at least 16 civilians. He also called for a meeting with the commander of American forces in Afghanistan.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Afghan president Hamid Karzai has ordered an investigation into last weekend's U.S. bombing in southern Afghanistan that killed at least 16 civilians. A number of Taliban fighters were also killed in the attack. Karzai has requested a meeting with the American commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, in order to get a full explanation of the incident described as one of the deadliest air raids since the 2001 invasion.

NPR's Ivan Watson is in Kabul and joins me now. And Ivan, what more is there known about this air raid?

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Well, the area that was hit, the village of Hajiyan in Kandahar Province, is still off-limits. It's been encircled by Afghan security forces and foreign troops, so people cannot go see for themselves what it happening there. And right now, the U.S. says an investigation is underway and is withholding comment for the time being.

It took place early on Monday. There was a battle there and air strikes were called in. The U.S. initially claimed as many as perhaps 80 Taliban being killed in those attacks, and said in a statement that the coalition quote, "only targeted air resistance compounds and buildings known to harbor extremists."

Now since then, the United Nations has said the civilian death toll has gone up to more than 20. An Afghan parliament member who spoke out in the assembly her in Kabul yesterday, he says that the death toll is in fact more than 100, with schools and homes destroyed, after all-night bombing raids. And he has accused President Karzai and the government of hiding the truth.

Karzai has called for an investigation, as he has in the past - there have been other incidents like this, when his foreign allies in the fight against the Taliban have killed civilians. It puts him in a very difficult position. He's gone so far as to even say that air strikes are not effective for fighting the insurgency. He was almost killed by one of these in the final days of the war against the Taliban, just before he was declared president.

MONTAGNE: And there are reports of more fighting today in southern Afghanistan. I'm looking at a wire right now reporting, and this is a wire report, you know, reporting dozens of insurgents killed. What more can you tell us about those fights?

WATSON: We haven't been able to confirm the report coming from an Afghan general in Uruzgan Province yet, claiming some 60 Taliban killed and four Afghan security forces killed in a battle there with air strikes reportedly having been called in for support. The Afghan Interior Ministry does say that there was a battle yesterday in that area with ten Taliban killed and one Afghan police officer killed in the same area.

MONTAGNE: Now, isn't this an area where NATO troops are supposed to play a greater role? They're going to be taking over from U.S. troops.

WATSON: Absolutely. NATO is supposed to be moving in to the south by July, doubling its presence on the ground there to around 17,000, 18,000 troops, and relieving the U.S. of some of the military burden there. So increasingly, we're hearing about Canadian troops that are deployed on the ground in Kandahar, of French soldiers being involved in clashes and taking casualties.

MONTAGNE: And Ivan, you've been reporting on Afghanistan since before the war ended. What is the overall security situation in Afghanistan? It would appear that after the Taliban were driven out four-and-a-half years ago, they're back.

WATSON: This is some of the worst fighting I've heard about, basically, since the overthrow of the Taliban. Aid workers here, diplomats, they're expecting the bloodiest summer yet in the south of the country. The estimates of more than 250 people killed in different incidents around Afghanistan over the last week alone. The Taliban was much more active over the course of the last winter, when fighting tends to die down, normally.

The U.N. has indicated that if this trend continues throughout the summer, it may have to move some of its aid workers out of this very turbulent region in the south of the country, because they simply can't continue working in these conditions.

MONTAGNE: Ivan, thank you very much.

That was NPR's Ivan Watson, speaking from Kabul.

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