WASHINGTON - Amid growing European discontent over the war in Afghanistan, the head of U.S. and NATO forces apologised Monday for an air strike that killed at least 27 civilians in the central part of the country Sunday.
"We are extremely saddened by the tragic loss of innocent lives. I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan people, and inadvertently killing or injuring civilians undermines their trust and confidence in our mission," Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), said in a statement.
"We will re-double our efforts to regain that trust," McChrystal continued.
Sunday's attack consisted of a U.S. helicopter firing on several vehicles as they traveled towards Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan.
But the political implications of the attack, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, was carried out by helicopter-borne U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF), could be serious, not just in Afghanistan itself, but also among electorates in Europe and Canada that have become increasingly opposed to their militaries' involvement in the war.
This is likely to be especially true in the Netherlands, whose government collapsed Saturday amid negotiations on whether or not to keep troops in Afghanistan.
The air strike took place in a district controlled by the Dutch army, and if Dutch forces assisted in the attack it could have serious political consequences in the Netherlands.
The attack was carried out on the apparently mistaken belief that a convoy of vehicles was transporting Taliban fighters toward eastern Helmand province, where U.S. and allied forces have launched a major offensive. That it took place in an area where Dutch forces are concentrated is likely to strengthen those factions in the Netherlands opposing any extension in the Hague's participation in the war beyond August.
The Dutch troops have been central in the war effort, despite their low numbers. The New York Times reported last week that the Netherlands - whose troop contribution to the Afghanistan mission is one of the highest per capita - have been subject to a higher casualty rate then other coalition forces, including the U.S., because of their postings in the dangerous southern province of Oruzgan.
The lethal strike came despite the implementation of stricter rules of engagement regarding strikes ordered by Gen. McChrystal last summer when he took command of NATO/ISAF.
This is the most lethal incident in which civilians were killed by U.S.-led forces since last September when a German-ordered air strike on fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban killed 140 people, the majority of whom were civilians.
ISAF officials insisted Monday that the attack is being investigated to determine whether it violated those rules of engagement.
In a statement released Monday, ISAF officials said "Yesterday, a group of suspected insurgents, believed to be en route to attack a joint Afghan-ISAF unit, was engaged by an airborne weapons team resulting in a number of individuals killed and wounded& After the joint ground force arrived at the scene and found women and children, they transported the wounded to medical treatment facilities."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has frequently condemned the killings of civilians by U.S. and NATO forces but has found himself largely powerless in terms of effecting change.
"The repeated killing of civilians by NATO forces is unjustifiable, we strongly condemn it," Karzai's cabinet said in a statement issued in Kabul. It said 27 civilians, "including four women and one child," were killed in the attack.
In another effort to improve the perception of ISAF forces, McChrystal revised the rules of engagement last summer to counter the rising numbers of civilian deaths attributed to coalition troops, and the increasing resentment toward his occupying army and the corrupt Afghan government that accompanies it.
The shift in policy restricted the use of air strikes to situations where coalition forces were in imminent danger.
Though McChrystal's policy is thought to be responsible for a downturn in the number of civilian casualties, it is not clear that this has translated into meaningful improvements for everyday Afghans.
According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the number of civilian casualties caused by coalition forces dropped by a third last year. However, the number of people killed by the Taliban and other militants rose by about 40 percent.
Although U.S./NATO forces have killed fewer civilians, the Taliban has killed more, bringing the number of civilian deaths to a 15 percent increase since last year, according to UNAMA.
In another effort to mitigate popular backlash surrounding these deadly attacks, a compensation system for death, injury or damage resulting from coalition operations was devised.
According to the Associated Press, the death of a child or adult is worth 1,500 to 2,500 dollars, loss of limb and other injuries 600 to 1,500 dollars, a damaged or destroyed vehicle 500 to 2,500 dollars, and damage to a farmer's fields 50 to 250 dollars.
Still, the protection of the population is central to the coalition forces' mission in Afghanistan, according to McChrystal's statement.
Consequently, as long as violence persists, it becomes almost irrelevant who is causing it, says David Wood, a veteran U.S. war correspondent.
"The perception among most Afghans is that the United States is responsible when Afghans are killed," he wrote last week in 'Politics Daily'.
"It may seem counterproductive for the Taliban to deliberately kill civilians, as their strategic goal is to win the support of the population against the government in Kabul and its foreign backers," he added. "But counterinsurgency experts say intimidation tactics are extremely effective - at least for a while."
UNAMA reported that 2009 was the deadliest year for civilians in Afghanistan since the toppling of the Taliban regime by U.S. forces in 2001.
This latest incident comes during the largest yet offensive for U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces, which have been fighting to secure the former Taliban stronghold of Marja in southern Helmand Province.