Angered by civilian casualties, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Tuesday he will no longer allow NATO airstrikes on houses, issuing his strongest statement yet against attacks that the military alliance says are vital to its war on Taliban insurgents.
NATO countered that airstrikes on houses are essential and will continue, setting up a possible confrontation with Karzai.
The president's remarks followed a recent strike that mistakenly killed a group of children and women in southern Helmand province. Karzai declared it would be the last.
"From this moment, airstrikes on the houses of people are not allowed," Karzai told reporters in Kabul.
Ordering airstrikes is a command decision in Afghanistan. A NATO spokeswoman there, Maj. Sunset Belinsky, insisted they would continue.
"Coalition forces constantly strive to reduce the chance of civilian casualties and damage to structures," Belinsky said, "but when the insurgents use civilians as a shield and put our forces in a position where their only option is to use airstrikes, then they will take that option."
In Brussels, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu insisted NATO airstrikes are still essential. She said the alliance takes Karzai's concerns very seriously and would continue to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. She said airstrikes on houses are coordinated with Afghan forces and "they continue to be necessary."
"In many of these operations, Afghans are in the lead," she said. She would not comment specifically on the recent raid in Helmand province.
Belinsky also offered a conciliatory tone. "In the days and weeks ahead we will coordinate very closely with President Karzai to ensure that his intent is met," she said. Karzai has previously made strong statements against certain military tactics, such as night raids, only to back away from them later.
If Karzai holds to what sounds like an order to international troops to abandon most airstrikes, it could bring the Afghan government into direct conflict with its international allies.
Karzai's spokesman said the president plans to stand firm on this issue, regardless of the fallout with NATO.
"The president was very clear today about the fact that bombardments on Afghan homes and Afghan civilians are unacceptable and must be stopped. There is no room for back and forth on this," Waheed Omar said. "The president was clear in saying that any such strikes in the future will make the Afghan government react unilaterally."
NATO airstrikes target Taliban and other militants in towns and villages. The international force has scaled back such strikes because of worries that civilians could be inside targeted buildings, but has maintained that they are still an essential tool because they are often more precise and can be less costly in casualties on both sides than ground operations.
It is unclear if Karzai has the power to order an end to such strikes. NATO and American forces are in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate. Negotiations between the United States and the Afghan government over the presence of U.S. forces have become contentious. Karzai has declared that he will put strict controls on how U.S. troops operate.
In his speech, Karzai did not explain what his threat of "unilateral action" would mean, but said he plans to discuss it with NATO officials next week.
He noted that he has often told his international allies that civilian deaths from airstrikes are unacceptable.
"If this is repeated, Afghanistan has a lot of ways of stopping it, but we don't want to go there. We want NATO to stop the raids on its own ... because we want to continue to cooperate," he said.
Karzai said that NATO forces risk being seen as an "occupying force," using the same phrase that Taliban insurgents use to describe the international coalition.
"They must treat Afghanistan as a sovereign nation," Karzai said.
A spokesman for the NATO military coalition commanded by U.S. Gen. David Petraeus said that the alliance is as concerned as Karzai about the perception.
"Gen. Petraeus has repeatedly noted that every liberation force has to be very conscious that it can, over time, become seen as an occupation force," Rear Adm. Vic Beck said in a statement.
"We are in agreement with President Karzai on the importance of constantly examining our actions in light of that reality — and we are doing just that," Beck said.
At least nine civilians were killed in Saturday's air strike in Helmand province, according to NATO. Afghan officials have said 14 were killed, including at least 10 children and two women.
NATO officials have apologized for the strike on two houses in Nawzad district, saying their troops thought the targeted compound housed only insurgents.
Southwest regional commander U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. John Toolan said that NATO launched the airstrike after an insurgent attack on a coalition patrol in the district killed a Marine. Five insurgents occupied a compound and continued to attack coalition troops, who called in an airstrike "to neutralize the threat," Toolan said.
The troops later discovered civilians inside the house.
Karzai has alternated between calling for an end to airstrikes and night raids and softer rebukes of NATO forces, telling them to exercise more caution. NATO has significantly reduced civilian casualties from its operations in recent years.
At the same time, civilians deaths from insurgent attacks have spiked.
At least 2,777 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2010, a 15 percent increase over the previous year, according to a United Nations report. The insurgency was blamed for most of those deaths, while civilian deaths attributed to NATO troops declined 21 percent.
The fighting has also continued to take the lives of international and Afghan forces. In the latest incident, a NATO service member was killed Tuesday in a bomb attack in eastern Afghanistan, according to a statement from NATO forces. The military alliance did not provide further details.
Including Tuesday's bombing, 52 NATO service members have been killed in May, including at least 28 Americans.