SANGIN, Afghanistan - A senior British commander in southern Afghanistan said in recent weeks that he had asked that American Special Forces leave his area of operations because the high level of civilian casualties they had caused was making it difficult to win over local people.
Other British officers here in Helmand Province, speaking on condition of anonymity, criticized American Special Forces for causing most of the civilian deaths and injuries in their area. They also expressed concerns that the Americans' extensive use of air power was turning the people against the foreign presence as British forces were trying to solidify recent gains against the Taliban.
An American military spokesman denied that the request for American forces to leave was ever made, either formally or otherwise, or that they had caused most of the casualties. But the episode underlines differences of opinion among NATO and American military forces in Afghanistan on tactics for fighting Taliban insurgents, and concerns among soldiers about the consequences of the high level of civilians being killed in fighting.
A precise tally of civilian deaths is difficult to pin down, but one reliable count puts the number killed in Helmand this year at close to 300 civilians, the vast majority of them caused by foreign and Afghan forces, rather than the Taliban.
"Everyone is concerned about civilian casualties," the senior British commander said. "Of course it is counterproductive if civilians get injured, but we've got to pick up the pack of cards that we have got. Other people have been operating in our area before us."
After months of heavy fighting that began in early 2006, the British commanders say they are finally making headway in securing important areas such as this town, and are now in the difficult position of trying to win back support among local people whose lives have been devastated by aerial bombing.
American Special Forces have been active in Helmand since United States forces first entered Afghanistan in late 2001, and for several years they maintained a small base outside the town of Gereshk. But the foreign troop presence was never more than a few hundred men.
British forces arrived in the spring of 2006 and now have command of the province with some 6,000 troops deployed, with small units of Estonians and Danish troops. American Special Forces have continued to assist in fighting insurgents, operating as advisers to Afghan national security forces.
It is these American teams that are coming under criticism. They tend to work in small units that rely heavily on air cover because they are vulnerable to large groups of insurgents. Such Special Forces teams have often called in airstrikes in Helmand and other places where civilians have subsequently been found to have suffered casualties.
In just two cases, airstrikes killed 31 nomads west of Kandahar in November last year and another 57 villagers, half of them women and children, in western Afghanistan in April. In both cases, United States Special Forces were responsible for calling in the airstrikes.
The chief British press officer in Helmand, Col. Charles Mayo, defended the American Special Forces and said they were essential to NATO's efforts to clear out heavily entrenched Taliban insurgents.
An American military spokesman said United States Special Forces would continue to operate in Helmand for the foreseeable future. He denied that their tactics had caused greater civilian deaths and blamed the Taliban for fighting from civilian compounds.
"U.S. Special Forces have a tremendous reputation not only in combat operations but also in training and advising the Afghan National Security Forces," Lt. Col. David Accetta, a spokesman for American forces in Afghanistan, said in an e-mail response from Bagram air base.
United States Special Forces had also provided development and medical assistance, which, with the combat missions, "can be said to have 'turned the tide' in Helmand," he said.
But the senior British commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity during an interview in July, said that in Sangin, which has been calm recently, there was no longer a need for United States Special Forces. "There aren't large bodies of Taliban to fight anymore; we are dealing with small groups and we are trying to kick-start reconstruction and development," he said.
Orders had just come down from the NATO force's headquarters in Kabul, which is led by Gen. Dan K. McNeill of the United States, re-emphasizing the need to avoid civilian deaths, he said.
"The phrase is: 'It may be legal but is it appropriate?' No one is saying it is illegal to use air power, but is there any other way of doing it if there is a risk of collateral damage?" he said.
For months, frequent reports of civilian casualties have trickled out of Helmand, scene of some of the fiercest battles of the recent war. But there has rarely been independent confirmation of the reports because the province has been too dangerous for journalists to visit.
Yet there is no doubt there have been civilian casualties, and British and Afghan officials acknowledged that they had seen some of them.
Villagers brought the bodies of 21 civilians killed in airstrikes May 8 on the village of Sarwan Qala to show the authorities in Sangin, they said. United States Special Forces were battling the Taliban on that occasion and called in the strikes, the United States military said in a statement at the time.
Three days later the nearby village of Sra Ghar was hit. British soldiers at a base called Robinson just south of Sangin said they had received 18 civilians around that time who were wounded in an American operation and flew them out to NATO hospitals for treatment.
On a rare visit to Helmand in mid-July, a journalist encountered children who were still suffering wounds sustained in that bombing raid or another around that time. Their father, Mohammadullah, brought them to the gate of the British Army base seeking help.
His son, Bashir Ahmed, 2, listless and stick thin, seemed close to death. The boy and his sister Muzlifa, 7, bore terrible shrapnel scars. NATO doctors had removed shrapnel from the boy's abdomen at the time of the raid and had warned his father that he might not survive, but two months later he was still hanging on.
The father said the bombing raid killed six members of the family and wounded five. His wife lost an arm, and the children's grandmother was killed, he said.
Altogether, he said, 20 people were killed in the airstrikes after Taliban fighters came through the village. He figured that the planes had bombed them mistakenly, because the Taliban were fighting United States forces well below the village at the time.
He said that he opposed the Taliban, but that after the bombing raid the villagers were so angered that most of the men who survived went off to join the insurgents. Whether people would support the foreign troops "depends on the behavior of ISAF," Mohammadullah said, referring to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. "If they treat the civilians well, they will win."
It is in fact the possibility of the population turning against them, or the unpopularity of the campaign back home, that most concerns the military, one NATO military official said. "We know we can beat the Taliban on the ground," the official said. "The issue is the population."
A civilian NATO from Kabul added, "The problem is Afghans are waking up and thinking: 'Why are they doing this?' "
Maj. Dominic Biddick, commander of a company of British soldiers in Sangin, is making a big effort to ease the anger and pain as his men patrol the villages. He has a $5,000 good-will fund and hands out cash to victims he comes across, like the farmer whose two sons were shot in the fields during a recent operation. And he has $10,000 a month to spend on community assistance programs. "If you are genuinely caring, you can win friends," he said.
Capt. Catherine Fisher, a civil affairs officer in Sangin, said that over six weeks ending in July she had received requests from 75 families who had lost relatives or property in recent fighting.
But while some of the victims and local people blame the Taliban for bringing violence to Helmand, hostility and bitterness toward the foreign forces remains.
"The Americans are killing and destroying a village just in pursuit of one person," said Mahmadullah, 24, referring to Osama bin Laden. "So now we have understood that the Americans are a curse on us, and they are here just to destroy Afghanistan. They can tell the difference between men and women, children and animals, but they are just killing everyone."
A trained mullah from the village of Kutaizi, half an hour from Sangin, Mahmadullah reacted with sarcasm to the idea that reconstruction and assistance could change the minds of the people.
"First they kill me, and then they rebuild my house?" he said. "What is the point when I am dead and my son is dead? This is not of any worth to us."
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company