NATO Airstrike Kills Five Afghans
KABUL—A NATO airstrike killed five Afghan army soldiers Wednesday, casting an early cloud over the coalition's efforts to cooperate closer with government forces under newly appointed U.S. Gen. David Petraeus.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said it will investigate the killings, but in the past has blamed such accidents on lapses in communications between Afghan and NATO forces in the field. Despite vaunted cooperation efforts, Afghan and coalition units in the field often operate separately and over different communication channels.
Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the No. 2 commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, told reporters that "we do have a challenge coordinating the efforts of the Afghan police, the Afghan army and the coalition forces at night sometimes."
The five Afghan soldiers were killed Wednesday at about 4 a.m. as they waited to ambush a group of Taliban insurgents who were moving under the cover of darkness through the eastern province of Ghazni, said Gen. Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense.
A NATO aircraft opened fire on them without warning, Mr. Azimi said, adding that it also wounded two Afghan soldiers who were part of the squad. Mr. Azimi condemned the incident and called on NATO and Afghan security "to enhance and improve their coordination."
Gen. Petraeus, who formally succeeded Gen. Stanley McChrystal as coalition commander in Afghanistan this month, has vowed, as his predecessor did, to limit the use of air power to cut down on erroneous fatalities.
But not all the friendly fire incidents between NATO and Afghan forces involve air power. In April, six Afghan soldiers died when German troops in the northern province of Kunduz opened fire on two vehicles they thought were carrying insurgents. That incident occurred following a Taliban attack hours earlier that killed two German minesweepers. The Germans had rushed to reinforce the minesweepers when they encountered the Afghans on the road.
"It was a case of friendly forces repositioning themselves when the other side didn't know it," said Col. Wayne Shanks, spokesman for coalition forces in Kabul. The Kunduz fatalities, he said, were a tragic consequence of "the fog of war."
In January, U.S. special-operations forces called in an airstrike on an Afghan army outpost, killing four Afghan soldiers. In November, eight Afghans were killed—four soldiers, three policemen and an interpreter—were killed in a firefight during a search for a missing U.S. paratrooper in Badghis province.
NATO is hoping that training and close cooperation with Afghan forces will allow the coalition to begin drawing down troops next year. During the past week, coalition officials have boasted of enormous success in southern Afghanistan, where NATO and Afghan counternarcotics troops have struck deep inside Taliban-controlled territory.
Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said Wednesday that one raid in south Helmand last week destroyed a cache of 5,700 kilograms of heroin—which coalition officials said is the largest single seizure of heroin in history. Officials said they discovered the cache after a fierce firefight in which 63 insurgents were killed.
But with supply lines of NATO and Afghan troops stretched thin, coalition officials concede they have ceded some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan to armed groups that may or may not be linked to the Taliban. A major challenge ahead will be to disband these groups so Afghan army and police can take over.
Separately, on Wednesday, a United Nations-backed election watchdog said it blocked 31 candidates from Afghanistan's parliamentary elections over links to illegal armed groups.
The Sept. 18 vote is expected to be a major test for security forces, as well as the legitimacy of the Afghan government.
Last year's presidential election was marred by allegations of widespread vote-rigging that favored President Hamid Karzai, as well as a surge in Taliban attacks that disrupted the poll.
The Electoral Complaints Commission said Wednesday that it will likely block more names as it reviews candidates vying for seats in Parliament.
—Habib Zahori contributed to this article.