(CNSNews.com) – Angry reaction to the reported deaths of civilians in U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan is posing an early foreign policy challenge for the Obama administration, just days after the appointment of a special representative to the two South Asian neighbors.
A military raid in an area about 40 miles northeast of Kabul left some 16 people dead. The military said those killed were armed Taliban fighters, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai said at the weekend most were civilians, and included two women and three children. Further investigations are planned.
Karzai said the killing of civilians was strengthening terrorists. He was seeking a formal agreement with Washington that would give Kabul more say over military operations carried out by American forces.
“Our goal is to improve our army and have the ability to defend our country ourselves as soon as possible, and not have civilian casualties anymore as we again had yesterday,” he said during a ceremony for newly-graduated Afghan military officers.
A U.S. military spokesman said the operation had targeted a Taliban commander who under orders from superiors in Afghanistan and abroad was “known to traffic foreign fighters and weapons into the region in order to conduct attacks against coalition forces, including the August 2008 attack in which French soldiers were killed.”
Approaching the commander’s location, coalition forces had come under attack from militants armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, and had engaged and killed 15 armed individuals, including a woman carrying a rocket-propelled grenade, he said. One suspected militant was detained, and troops had found assault rifles, grenades and ammunition.
Hundreds of residents of the affected area, Mehtar Lam in Laghman province, protested on Sunday. Karzai, who is seeking reelection in September, has been increasingly outspoken about the deaths of civilians as U.S. and NATO forces confront Taliban fighters intent on toppling his Western-backed government.
President Obama is considering a plan to send 20,000 or more additional troops to Afghanistan, where some 34,000 American troops are currently deployed.
Visiting the State Department last Thursday, Obama called Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan “the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism,” citing increasing violence and attacks by Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters who shelter along the border with Pakistan.
He was speaking at the announcement that veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke was being appointed special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The State Department said Holbrooke would visit the region soon.
Pakistan, meanwhile, is urging Obama to end a continuing policy of missile strikes against targets inside its territory. More than 30 such attacks have been reported since last August, launched from unmanned drones against suspected terrorists based in Pakistan’s lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The Bush administration consistently declined to comment publicly on the issue.
Three days after Obama took office, another two strikes were reported, in the FATA districts of North and South Waziristan. Pakistani officials said militants were among more than 20 people killed, but that civilians had also died.
“Pakistan has consistently lodged strong protest with the U.S. government against drone attacks, which constitute infringement of Pakistan’s sovereignty,” the foreign ministry said in a statement on Saturday.
“Yesterday’s attack in the Waziristan area which caused civilian causalities is a matter of great concern. These concerns have been conveyed to the U.S. side.”
“With the advent of the new U.S. administration it is Pakistan’s sincere hope that the United States will review its policy and adopt a more holistic and integrated approach towards dealing with the issue of terrorism and extremism,” the statement said. “We maintain that these attacks are counter-productive and should be discontinued.”
Vice President Joe Biden told CBS News on Sunday that it would not be appropriate for him to comment on “any particular action.” But he recalled Obama’s campaign pledges about acting against “actionable” high-level al-Qaeda targets.
Biden also conceded that U.S. troop casualties in Afghanistan would likely climb as forces “go in and try to essentially reclaim territory that’s been effectively lost.”
He said the new administration had “inherited a real mess” in Afghanistan, citing among other things “failure to get a coherent policy among our allies, economically and politically, and in terms of the military resources.”
As Obama took office last week two of NATO’s leading European members, France and Germany, both raised doubts about their willingness to send more troops to Afghanistan.