KABUL President Hamid Karzai warned NATO-led forces in Afghanistan on Tuesday that they were at risk of being seen as an occupying force rather than an ally after a spate of civilian casualties, and said he would take unspecified "action" if they continue.
Raids on Afghan homes in pursuit of insurgents were "not allowed", and the patience of the Afghan people with the tactic had run out, Karzai said, underlining the challenge of winning popular support for an increasingly violent war.
"We see NATO from the point of view of an ally... If they don't stop air strikes on Afghan homes, their presence in Afghanistan will be considered as an occupying force and against the will of the Afghan people," he told reporters.
The fiery speech also underlined Karzai's desire to forge an image as champion of Afghanistan and distance himself from the Western troops who have spent nearly a decade fighting the Taliban, as resentment against the foreign presence grows.
Karzai's rise to power in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban was due in no small part to Western support, something which his critics have not forgotten.
Karzai sharply condemned NATO air strikes which inadvertently killed at least nine people -- most of them small children -- in southern Helmand on Sunday. The strikes were ordered after a patrol had come under fire.
Civilian casualties caused by foreign troops, usually in air strikes or night raids on Afghan, have long been a major source of friction between Karzai and his Western backers.
Karzai warned that the tactics were a violation of Afghanistan's sovereignty.
"They must stop bombarding Afghan homes... If they do not, the Afghan government will be forced to take unilateral action," Karzai said, declining to go into detail about what his government would do if the tactics were not stopped.
KARZAI'S OPTIONS LIMITED
Holding up one finger, Karzai said he had warned NATO commanders "a hundred times" over the matter, and hoped to meet them again this week to reinforce that message.
But with an army and police still not strong enough to fight the battle-hardened Taliban on their own, it was unclear how Karzai hoped to persuade NATO to give up a tactic they say has brought crucial gains against the insurgents.
"If more civilian deaths happen, maybe Karzai will actually do something, such as stopping Afghan forces from participating in joint operations," said Waheed Mujhda, political analyst at the Afghan Analytical and Advisory Centre in Kabul.
"But this is dangerous. Afghanistan is in crisis and the Afghan forces do not have the capacity to run things on their own," Mujhda told Reuters.
NATO is racing against the clock to train Afghanistan's police and army before handing over all security responsibilities to the Afghans by end-2014.
Tension boiled over at the weekend after the strikes on a compound in Helmand's Nawzad district. Graphic television footage after the strikes showed grieving relatives cradling the bodies of several children, including babies.
The commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in southwestern Afghanistan later apologised for the deaths, saying the strikes on the compound had been ordered because insurgents were using them as a base. Relatives of the dead denied the claims.
U.S. and NATO commanders have stepped up the use of air strikes and night raids in the past 12 months, arguing they are effective weapons against insurgents who often hide among the Afghan population.
However commanders have significantly tightened the rules for using both tactics over the past two years amid a growing outcry from Afghan leaders.
U.N. figures show that at least three-quarters of civilians casualties are caused by insurgents but it is those by NATO forces which cause the most public anger among ordinary Afghans.
The latest NATO strikes came at a time of high anti-Western sentiment in Afghanistan, and weeks ahead of the first stage of a security transition from foreign forces to Afghans due to begin in several areas in July.
The argument over air strikes and night raids also comes at a time of heightened violence across the country since the Taliban began their spring offensive at the start of May.
(Writing by Paul Tait and Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)