The commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan said Sunday he would comply with President Hamid Karzai’s order banning Afghan security forces from seeking NATO air support.
Karzai said on Saturday that he would issue a decree ordering an end to local security forces calling in NATO air strikes amid new tensions over civilian casualties caused by such attacks.
Air strikes have been an important weapon in the fight against Taliban insurgents, but they have also proved hugely controversial as they have led to numerous civilian deaths.
U.S. General Joseph Dunford, who took charge of the U.S.-led NATO force in the war-battered country last Sunday, said he was prepared to comply with Karzai’s order, made after a NATO air raid killed 10 civilians including women and children in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday night.
“We are prepared to provide support in line with the president’s intent,” Dunford told reporters in Kabul.
Karzai summoned Dunford over the air raid in Kunar province.
“I get the broad guidance from the president and we will work out the details in the coming days,” Dunford said.
“We have restraints and constraints on each operation. I believe we will continue to support the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) and meet the president’s intent,” Dunford said in response to questions about Karzai’s order.
“There are other ways to support the Afghans besides aviation,” he said.
He added that his troops had made “huge progress in mitigating the civilian casualties”.
NATO restricted air strikes on civilian areas in June in the wake of another botched mission which killed 18 civilians, though U.S. deputy commander in Afghanistan Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti said they could still be used as a “last resort” to save soldiers’ lives.
Asked on Sunday whether NATO troops could still call in air strikes in these circumstances, a spokesman for the coalition declined to comment.
Civilian casualties caused by military operations are a sensitive issue in Afghanistan where Dunford is leading more than 100,000 U.S. and NATO troops to defeat a Taliban-led insurgency.
For the past 11 years NATO’s vast fleet of fighter jets, attack helicopters, unmanned drones and transport aircraft have supported ground troops in operations against the Taliban.
Last year coalition aircraft in Afghanistan flew 28,640 close air support sorties, firing weapons 4,082 times, according to official figures. Drones fired 494 times.
Afghanistan’s own poorly equipped air force has no fixed-wing attack aircraft and is not capable of providing firepower to support ground troops.
A Western security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the new ban would make the fight against the militants much harder.
“With no air strikes things will probably be a lot more complicated,” he told AFP.
“The challenge in Afghanistan is the extreme mobility of the enemy. If you want to go after him into his hideouts, it’s very difficult to do on foot or by four-wheel drive.
“If air strikes are eventually banned, it’s a good victory for the Taliban -- without air power you have to chase after them.”
The bulk of NATO’s 100,000 combat troops are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and Western governments are keen to stress Afghan forces’ capabilities, but the loss of air cover will leave them more vulnerable.