KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai is very serious about a demand for foreign forces in Afghanistan to halt air raids, even though it was rebuffed by a top U.S. security official, his spokesman said on Monday.
Afghans are furious about the bombing of two villages in Western Farah province during a drawn-out battle last week, when bombs hit homes crowded with civilians, some of them children.
In a sign of growing public unhappiness, lawmakers on Monday demanded legal restrictions on foreign forces fighting in their country, then closed for half a day to protest the attack.
A day earlier, hundreds of Kabul university students had marched against the killings, chanting “death to America.”
Karzai, who went on U.S. television to demand an end to all air attacks, has put the death toll at up to 130 people. If his figure is confirmed, it would be the biggest such case of Western forces killing civilians since they invaded in 2001.
His plea was rejected by White House National Security Advisor James Jones, who said the United States could not be expected to fight “with one hand tied behind our back.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in comments to reporters at the Pentagon on Monday, echoed and endorsed Jones’ remark, but said, “There is a tremendous effort going on, on our part, to try and avoid civilian casualties.
“The fact of the matter is, civilian casualties since January in Afghanistan are down 40 percent over a year ago during the same period,” he said, adding that U.S., Afghan, and ISAF casualties were up 75 percent during that period.
But an issue that is already poisoning ties between Washington and Kabul may become even more toxic, as Karzai’s team showed no signs of backing away from their call to end attacks.
“We demand a complete end to the bombardment of our villages ... and we are very serious about it,” said presidential spokesman Siymak Herawi, when asked about Jones’s comments.
“They are like a double-edged weapon with which the international community is hurting itself and also the Afghan people,” he said.
The growing toll of casualties from aerial bombings has been eroding support for troops on the ground. They accounted for well over half of civilian deaths caused by Western and pro-government forces in 2008, according to the United Nations.
“It will be the biggest problem for the presence of the international community if they do not avoid the killing of innocent people,” lawmaker Mohammad Moin Marastyal told Reuters, after a morning debating the strikes Farah.
“There would be uprisings against foreign forces in Afghanistan,” he added.
Parliament fears civilian deaths caused by foreign forces are now also undermining the legitimacy of Karzai’s already fragile government, and risked discouraging ordinary Afghans from voting in a presidential election in August.
Lawmakers said they had given Karzai an ultimatum to put controls on military forces operating in their country.
“The government must come up with a plan, within one week, to regulate the foreign forces,” said Abdul Sattar Khawaasi, secretary of the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house.
“Their presence must be legalized. When a foreign soldier acts contrary to the law of Afghanistan, he should be prosecuted according to Afghanistan’s law,” Khawaasi told Reuters.
Army General David Petraeus, who as head of U.S. Central Command oversees military operations in Afghanistan, said he had assigned a brigadier general to look at the use of air strikes.
Petraeus said it was important to ensure “that our tactical actions don’t undermine our strategic goals and objectives.”
Karzai’s spokesman Herawi said the raids were not producing a substantial impact on a Taliban insurgency that has been gathering strength across the south and east of the country.
“Our houses and villages are not havens for terrorists. The havens of terrorists are on the other side of the border,” Herawi said alluding to neighboring Pakistan.
But analysts say U.S. and NATO-led troops would be unlikely to agree to fight without air power, because they are spread relatively thinly across Afghanistan.
Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington