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Karzai gives U.S. ultimatum on civilian deaths

Hours after reports appeared that a NATO air strike had killed 14 civilians in Helmand Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued an ominous statement, giving his “last warning” to US officials.

“The president called this incident a great mistake and the murdering of Afghanistan’s children and women, and on behalf of the Afghan people gives his last warning to the US troops and US officials in this regard,” said a statement from the president’s office.

Over the past several months in particular, this has become a familiar pattern in Afghanistan. NATO forces kill civilians, Karazai condemns NATO in dramatic terms, and then the war goes on unchanged.

Karzai’s condemnations, which have yet to be followed with serious action, are likely meant to garner support among the Afghan people, who are furious about civilian casualties. But a number of Afghans say such emotional remarks may end up weakening the standing of the president.

“At the current time, I think the foreigners are used to getting warned about civilian causalities and the Afghan nation doesn’t have any hope from these kinds of statements,” says Farouk Meranai, a former member of parliament from Nagarhar. “It is impossible to completely stop the civilian casualties in a country where there is conflict. After Karzai’s statement, which was really serious and emotional, if this kind of incident happens again, what will happen?”

In March, Karzai made a similar statement following a NATO attack that left nine children dead in Afghanistan’s restive Kunar Province. After visiting with the families of the children, Karzai issued a statement calling for US and NATO to stop their operations here.

The remark sparked serious tensions between US and Afghan officials. Several days later, Karzai’s office said that the president had only meant international forces should stop operations that result in civilian casualties.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force issued an apology about the most recent incident, saying that it “takes each civilian injury or death extremely seriously. It is our top priority to prevent civilian causalities and we continue to improve our practices and strive to prevent these types of incidents from happening.”

UN officials say that international forces are indeed making headway in reducing civilian casualties. In a recent report, the UN found that NATO-caused civilian causalities dropped by 26 percent in 2010 as compared to 2009.

Given the Afghan government’s dependence on foreign assistance, a number of Afghans say that Karzai’s tactics will only succeed in weakening his position.

“Our president is an elected president, but he can do nothing. He’s just showing the nation that he’s defending it and he supports the point of view of the people and their demands,” says Ahmad Sayedi, a political analyst and former Afghan diplomat to Pakistan. “This warning from the president isn’t the first one and it won’t be the last one.… If the foreigners stop their assistance to the Afghan police and Army, by tomorrow our military would be gone.”

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