KABUL, Afghanistan – Critics expressed worries Monday that a presidential order barring Afghan security forces from requesting international airstrikes during operations in residential areas could hobble government troops even as they prepare to take over full responsibility for security in the country from international forces.
Underscoring the troops’ dependence on warplanes and helicopters, the U.S.-led coalition said Monday that an airstrike last week killed an Afghan soldier-turned-insurgent who was feted by the Taliban for killing an American soldier during an insider attack last year.
President Hamid Karzai officially issued the order on Monday, two days after promising to do so amid anger over a NATO airstrike requested by the national intelligence service that local officials said killed at least 10 civilians and four insurgents.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, said he believes the American-led NATO coalition can operate effectively despite the ban.
Afghans currently lead about 90 percent of military operations nationwide and will fully take charge in the spring, a key step in the plan to withdraw U.S. and other foreign combat forces by the end of 2014. However, they remain heavily dependent on the coalition for air support and medical evacuations in areas where the Taliban and other militants live among the population and often enjoy local support.
The ban also runs counter to Afghan requests for NATO to supply their security forces with aircraft capable of carrying out airstrikes. The Afghan military has repeatedly implored the United States for jet fighters, such as F-16s, tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons.
Some analysts said the ban on airstrikes against residential areas would limit the Afghan forces’ effectiveness and could prompt the savvy Taliban to use it by increasingly taking shelter among civilians in cities and villages.
“We don’t have the ability to support our forces on the ground,” said former Afghan Gen. Amrullah Aman.
“These insurgents are using Afghan houses as bunkers and innocent children are being killed,” he added. “The insurgents will hear that the decree has been issued and feel safe.”
The death of civilians during military operations, particularly in airstrikes, has been among a major source of acrimony between Karzai’s government and foreign forces.
The U.S.-led military coalition said last June that it would only use airstrikes as a self-defense weapon of last resort for troops and would avoid hitting structures that could house civilians. That followed a bombardment that killed 18 civilians celebrating a wedding in eastern Logar province, which drew an apology from the American commander.