President Karzai's cabinet demanded on Monday a renegotiation of agreements regulating the presence of international troops in Afghanistan after reports that around 90 civilians had been killed in US-led air strikes in a village in the western province of Herat on Friday.
Karzai had sacked two of his generals the previous day for "negligence and concealing facts" about the killings. His office condemned "the unilateral and imprecise operation which included both ground and air strikes in Azizabad district [which] caused a tragic incident claiming 89 civilian lives including women and children."
The Afghan army was ordered to hand out supplies of food and humanitarian relief to people in the region, but they were confronted by stone-throwing crowds instead.
The cabinet has said the review should focus on the "authorities and responsibilities" of international troops and demand a halt to air strikes on civilians, illegal detentions and unilateral house searches. A government commission which visited the site of the attack on Sunday said that more than 90 civilians, most of them women and children had been killed. Other reports put the death toll at 76, but either way it is one of the deadliest civilian tolls in international military action since the end of 2001.
While the US military are continuing to insist that the attack was on a "legitimate target", other governments with forces in the country are beginning to distance themselves from this claim. Norway, which has been contributing to troops to the Nato-led, UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) since the very beginning, yesterday criticised the killing of civilians.
There are now nearly 70,000 international soldiers from around 40 countries in Afghanistan. About 53,000 are with Isaf, while the remainder are with the US-led coalition, under the banner of Operation Enduring Freedom, which unseated the Taliban. The UN mission is mandated by a resolution extended annually since 2003, that says it should assist the Afghan government in maintaining security. The deal is due to be extended in October and will probably be approved.
The US has a bilateral agreement with the Afghan government which outlines the coalition's operations including counter-terrorism operations, intelligence sharing and training the Afghan security forces. The current agreement was signed in May 2005. The cabinet has called for both agreements to be reviewed and tasked the foreign and defence ministries to negotiate with "officials of international forces". It stated:
The authorities and responsibilities of the international forces in Afghanistan must be regulated through a 'status of force agreement' consistent with both international and Afghan laws. Air strikes on civilian targets, uncoordinated house searches and illegal detention of Afghan civilians must be stopped.
The cabinet statement said the government had "repeatedly" discussed with international troops the issue of civilian casualties in raids and the "harassing" of ordinary people. "Unfortunately, to date, our demands have not been addressed, rather, more civilians, including women and children are losing their lives as a result of air raids," it concluded.
These words say it all; it is difficult to know what to add to a news story like this, except that we can only hope the Afghan government is finally listened to.