KABUL, Afghanistan – In an incident that could seriously undermine the central aim set forth by the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, dozens of Afghan civilians were killed and injured Friday in an airstrike by NATO-led forces on two hijacked fuel tankers, according to Afghan authorities.
The pre-dawn strike in a remote part of northern Kunduz province, near the border with Tajikistan, killed more than 70 people, most of them civilians, according to Afghan police, provincial officials and doctors. Dozens of villagers suffered serious burns in the fireball ignited when the tankers were hit, they said.
NATO is investigating the incident, which comes at a time of deepening political turmoil in Afghanistan. Tensions have been running high as votes are being tallied in the country’s disputed presidential election.
Only days earlier, Western military officials had touted figures showing a dramatic drop in civilian casualties inadvertently caused by Western troops, crediting strict new rules of engagement for declines in deaths during July and August.
Upon assuming command of U.S. and Western forces in Afghanistan in mid-June, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal had declared the safeguarding of civilian lives his top priority, because such casualties erode support among Afghans for the presence of foreign forces.
In the initial hours after Friday’s strike, Western military officials expressed confidence that nearly all those killed had been insurgents. But reports trickling in from the scene painted a grim picture of impoverished villagers engulfed by the explosion as they swarmed the stranded tankers, trying to siphon fuel.
The strike was called in by German troops, who make up the bulk of Western forces deployed in Kunduz.
The hijack drama began Thursday night when militants suspected of belonging to the Taliban commandeered two tanker trucks as they traveled along a main road. In recent months, NATO has been sending supplies into Afghanistan via Tajikistan, to the north, after Taliban militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas repeatedly attacked what had been the most widely used supply route, running through the Khyber Pass.
After the hijacking, the trucks were tracked via aerial surveillance to a spot near the village of Omar Khel, where they became stuck when the hijackers tried to drive them across a riverbed. Western military officials said they believed there were no civilians in the area, a crucial precondition for airstrikes under a tactical directive issued by McChrystal soon after he took command.
But there was a time lag of more than half an hour between when the decision to call in a strike was made and it was carried out, according to military officials.
Some Afghan officials said the Taliban encouraged local people to take advantage of the bonanza on their doorstep, alerting villagers in the middle of the night to the stranded trucks’ presence.