KABUL, Afghanistan – The top American commander in Afghanistan said on Sunday that he believes the U.S.-led NATO coalition can operate effectively despite the Afghan president's decision to ban Afghan security forces from requesting airstrikes in residential areas.
President Hamid Karzai on Saturday said he decided on the ban after Afghan security services asked the U.S. military for an airstrike during a joint Afghan-NATO operation last week. Afghan officials said the airstrike killed 10 civilians, including women and children, in northeast Kunar province along with four insurgents.
The death of civilians during military operations, particularly in airstrikes, has been among the most divisive issues of the 11-year-old war. The U.S.-led coalition has implemented measures to mitigate them, but the Afghan military also relies heavily on air support to gain an upper hand in the fight against Taliban militants and other insurgents.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford told reporters during a briefing that he was working out the details of the ban with Afghanistan's defense minister and military chief.
"This is a sovereign nation and the president is exercising sovereignty," Dunford said, adding that NATO had "made extraordinary progress in mitigating risks to civilians and we will continue to do so."
Dunford said coalition forces believe they can conduct "effective operations within the president's guidance" because it falls within a tactical directive issued last year by his predecessor, Marine Gen. John Allen.
The U.S.-led military coalition said last June that it would limit airstrikes to a self-defense weapon of last resort for troops and would avoid hitting structures that could house civilians. That followed a bombardment that killed 18 civilians celebrating a wedding in eastern Logar province, which drew an apology from the American commander.
The coalition, however, can still carry out airstrikes on its own accord.
"I believe the support we will provide to the Afghans is exactly consistent with the coalition's tactical directive," Dunford said.
The U.N. mission in Afghanistan said 83 civilians were killed and 46 wounded in aerial attacks by international military forces in the first half of 2012. That figure was down 23 percent from the same period of 2011 -- the deadliest year on record for civilians in the Afghan war. It said two-thirds of the casualties last year were women and children and insurgents were responsible for the overwhelming majority of the deaths.
Karzai's decision, however, could hamper the Afghan force's ability to fight the insurgency as it robs them of one of their most potent weapons. It also runs counter to Afghan requests for NATO to supply their security forces with aircraft capable of carrying out airstrikes. The Afghan military has repeatedly implored the United States for jet fighters, such as F-16's, and heavy weapons -- including tanks and artillery.
"There are other ways we can support our Afghan partners other than air ordinance," Dunford said without elaborating. He said the Afghan security forces will have to take Karzai's decree into account when they make future operational plans.
Afghans currently lead about 90 percent of military operations nationwide and will fully take charge in the spring. However, they remain heavily dependent on the coalition for air support and medical evacuations from remote areas.
Karzai announced his decree on airstrikes on Saturday and said he would formally issue it in coming days.
He also has issued a decree that orders the prosecution of Afghan security forces involved in torturing prisoners and requires all future interrogations be videotaped.
That decree, issued late Saturday, came after a government delegation agreed with a U.N. report that found widespread abuse in Afghan prisons more than a year after reforms were promised. The Afghan government had previously maintained that torture occurred rarely, if at all, but said it would put more oversight in place to make sure prisoners were not being abused.
After a two-week fact-finding mission, an Afghan government delegation said earlier this month that it had found credible evidence that close to half of the prisoners the delegation interviewed were tortured.
Karzai said in a 12-article decree that existing laws needed to be implemented in order to prevent torture, such as access to defense lawyers and limits on how long a suspect can be held without charge. Karzai also said that all interrogations should be videotaped and that district-level detention officials should get higher salaries.
The decree stressed the importance of prosecuting anyone accused of mistreatment. It also calls on the country's chief justice, the interior minister, the head of the intelligence service and the justice minister to produce a report every three months on their progress on these reforms.