KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan's president said Saturday that the United States has put the two countries' security pact at risk with a unilateral airstrike that killed 18 civilians, while a Taliban suicide bomber killed four French soldiers responding to a tipoff about a bomb hidden under a bridge.
The violence and the dispute highlight the muddled nature of the international mission in Afghanistan as NATO coalition countries try to shift to a training role in a country that is still very much at war.
The majority of NATO and U.S. forces are scheduled to leave the country by the end of 2014, but the exit is looking far from neat at the beginning of the hot summer months when fighting typically surges.
France is already rushing to get its combat forces out by the end of this year, and four deaths in one bombing could precipitate that pullout.
The U.S., meanwhile, has tried to create an orderly transition through a series of agreements covering detentions, village raids and its long-term commitment to Afghanistan. But the Wednesday airstrike by U.S. forces showed how quickly those deals divorce from the reality on the ground.
During the raid in the eastern province of Logar, troops from both countries came under fire while going after a local Taliban leader holed up in a village home. They fought back, and the Americans called in an airstrike. Only later did they discover that in addition to insurgents, they killed women, children and old men who had gathered there for a wedding party.
Presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi said that President Hamid Karzai met with investigators and concluded that U.S. troops had called in the aircraft without coordinating with Afghan units -- thus, according to Kabul's interpretation, violating the terms of its agreements with Washington.
Raids on villages, which frequently occur at night, have been a major strain on Karzai's relationship with the international military coalition. Karzai says they put civilians at risk of injury or death. Military officials say such operations are key to capturing and killing Taliban leaders.
The pact signed by the U.S. and Afghanistan in April put the Afghan government in charge of most such "special operations" -- a move designed to resolve some of the longstanding tension.
However, Faizi said, investigators told the president that the Wednesday airstrike was a "one-sided" American decision, and was not coordinated with Afghan security forces. He said that Afghan forces had surrounded the house in question, but the U.S. troops decided not to wait for them to try to flush out the militants and called in aircraft instead.
Karzai and his advisers decided that if such an incident happened again they would consider it a breach of the special operations pact, the spokesman said. He said Kabul felt that the United States was not holding to the promises it made in that accord, as well as a larger strategic partnership agreement signed last month.
"The expectation of the Afghan government and the Afghan people was that a new page would open between Afghanistan and the United States," the spokesman said. If another unapproved airstrike occurs, he said, the Afghan government will have to consider that the U.S. troops part of an "occupation." Karzai had at times said the foreign troops risked becoming "occupiers" prior to the signing of the April and May agreements.
The Logar strike was the fifth incident of civilian casualties from U.S. unilateral actions since the long term partnership was signed, Faizi said.
Top U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. John Allen apologized for the civilian deaths on Friday and a NATO investigation ruled that the coalition forces were responsible for the unintended deaths of civilians.
However, a spokesman for NATO forces in Afghanistan declined to comment on the Afghan investigators' findings, and on whether the terms of the special operations pact had been violated. He said that Afghan forces had approved the larger Logar operation.
"The operation as a whole was approved by the Afghans. This was an Afghan/coalition operation," Col. Gary Kolb said.
According to a separate statement issued by the president's office, Karzai met at the presidential palace with Gen. Allen and the U.S. ambassador, and that the general agreed to his demands: to no longer conduct airstrikes in Afghan villages or against homes.
"Afghanistan signed a long-term strategic partnership with the United States with this condition and with this hope: that the villages and houses of the people would be safe," the statement said.
A spokesman for U.S. forces declined to confirm Karzai's assertion that Allen had agreed to his demands, saying only that procedures were under review.
"We are aware of the comments from the palace tonight. We are currently reviewing our tactical directives and procedures," said Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings. He said the U.S. would continue to work with the Afghan government to "minimize civilian casualties throughout all of our operations."
Karzai's statements came on the same day that the coalition's departing French contingent suffered four fatalities in a suicide attack.
French troops were responding to a report of a bomb planted under a bridge in the main market area of Kapisa province's Nijrab district when a suicide bomber walked up to the soldiers and detonated his explosives, said Qais Qadri, a spokesman for the provincial government.
Another five French troops were wounded in the blast, along with four Afghan civilians, according to French and Afghan officials.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in an email from spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.
The Kapisa bombing was the second deadly attack on NATO troops reported Saturday. NATO forces said earlier in the day that a service member was killed in a bomb attack in the east. A spokesman for the international coalition, Maj. Martyn Crighton, said the attacks were not related and happened in different parts of the east.
The deaths bring to 13 the number of international troops killed in June, and a total of 189 so far this year.
French President Francois Hollande said he has asked Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and the chief of staff of the French army Edouard Guillaud to travel to Afghanistan on Sunday in a show of support for France's troops here.
The recently elected Hollande campaigned on a promise to pull all of France's combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year -- well before the 2014 goal for the majority of NATO combat troops to leave the country.
Last month, Hollande announced that 2,000 combat troops would be withdrawn, but around 1,400 soldiers would be left to help with training and logistics.
France now has 3,400 troops and 150 gendarmes in Afghanistan. Under Hollande's plan, some would stay behind to help send military equipment back to France, and others would help train the Afghan army and police. He did not provide a breakdown for the roles of the 1,400 soldiers who will remain past 2012 or how long they would stay.
Hollande said Saturday that the drawdown of French troops in Afghanistan will begin in July and finish by the end of the year.