KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday rejected an apology by the American general running the military campaign in his country for the recent deaths of nine boys in a helicopter attack, sending already tense relations with Washington to a new low.
Karzai’s increasingly bitter public and private criticism of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan threatens a complete breakdown in the crucial relationship between the Afghan government and Washington. Karzai said the Afghans would lose trust in international forces as a result of civilian casualties, more of which were “unacceptable.”
Karzai’s comments came despite his speaking to President Barack Obama in an hourlong video teleconference Wednesday, the day the boys were killed in northeast Afghanistan. Obama “expressed his deep regret,” the White House said.
Gen. David Petraeus met Karzai on Sunday and apologized for the incident in Kunar province, in which nine boys, said to be 7 to 13 years old, were attacked by coalition helicopters.
“The apology is not enough,” Karzai said in a statement issued by his office. “Civilian casualties produced by the military operations of coalition forces are the cause of tension in relations between Afghanistan and the United States of America. The people of Afghanistan are fed up from these brutal incidents and apologies and condemnation cannot cure their pain.”
The dispute was inflamed further when Petraeus suggested in a recent meeting with Karzai that some civilian casualties were caused deliberately by Afghan parents to tarnish the coalition, referring to a separate incident in Kunar last month in which locals and Afghan officials claim 65 people were killed. Coalition forces insist that only insurgents died.
In response to the deaths of the boys, Petraeus instructed all field commanders and helicopter crews to again study their rules of engagement. In the Kunar province case, a coalition investigation found that the helicopter crew had been sent to the wrong place.
According to a United Nations study, three-quarters of civilian casualties in Afghanistan are being caused by the Taliban. Some are deliberate in attacks on non-military targets such as banks, shopping malls and sports events. Sunday, a roadside bomb in the eastern province of Paktika, assumed to be planted by insurgents, killed up to 12 civilians, including five children.