By Laura King and David S. Cloud, Los Angeles Times –
KABUL, Afghanistan — With the American defense secretary in his capital, President Hamid Karzai on Thursday harshly criticized the Western war effort and hurried home from China to protest the deaths of 18 civilians in what Afghan officials said was an errant U.S. airstrike.
Civilian casualties have long been a sore point between the Karzai government and the NATO force, but the latest episode overshadowed the visit of Leon E. Panetta, who arrived for consultations with senior U.S. and Afghan officials about the American troop drawdown, which is to gather speed this summer.
By September, an additional 23,000 American troops are to head home, reducing their numbers to about 68,000, a schedule that Panetta said he expected would hold.
Addressing U.S. troops a day after the year’s deadliest day for Afghan civilians — which included a suicide bombing in Kandahar as well as the airstrike in Logar province, outside Kabul — the defense secretary sought to dispel the notion that violence is inexorably rising across Afghanistan.
“There is an uptick obviously, as we all expected, but the level of violence remains down from the past,” he told them.
In a visit that lasted just three hours, Panetta met with Gen. John Allen, the U.S. commander of Western forces in Afghanistan; U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who is soon leaving his post for health reasons; and Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, who appeared with the defense secretary at a joint news conference.
As those consultations were taking place, Karzai, still in China, issued a statement saying that Western military operations that harmed and killed civilians “can in no way be justifiable, acceptable and tolerable.”
Before cutting short his China trip and flying home to Kabul, arriving after Panetta’s departure, the Afghan leader telephoned the family of one of those killed in Wednesday’s bombardment in Logar province, offering condolences and promising a full investigation.
The Western military has acknowledged only injuries to two civilian women, but said those killed in the raid were insurgents. Afghan officials in Logar, however, said the airstrike hit not only a building where Taliban commanders were meeting, but also an adjacent structure filled with women and children.
Panetta was asked at the news conference whether the troop drawdown timetable was still feasible in light of recent developments. He said Allen was confident the withdrawals could proceed as planned.
But Wardak sounded more concerned about the pace of the pullbacks. He emphasized that the U.S. had promised periodic reviews of troop levels and the security situation, implying that if violence continued to rise, Afghan officials might seek to slow the departure of international troops.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization force has been handing security responsibility to Afghan forces, a phased process that is to be completed by 2014, when NATO’s combat role ends. However, thousands of Western troops, including special operations forces and trainers for the Afghan police and army, are expected to remain after that.