- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 7, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan | A botched NATO airstrike killed five Afghan soldiers after they were mistaken for insurgents early Wednesday, highlighting continued weak coordination between international troops and the local security forces they are striving to build.

An Afghan defense official condemned the “friendly fire” deaths in the eastern province of Ghazni. They came as three more American troops were reported killed in the south and as Britain announced it would turn over control of a violence-plagued southern district to U.S. forces.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the newly arrived commander of international forces in Afghanistan, issued personal condolences to the families of the dead Afghan soldiers, a spokesman said.

A joint Afghan-international investigation was continuing into how the mistake happened, NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz said.

“We were obviously not absolutely clear whether there were Afghan national security forces in the area,” Gen. Blotz said, suggesting there was a failure in communication.

Training up and coordinating with the Afghan army and police is one of the cornerstones of NATO’s counterinsurgency strategy, which the alliance is counting on to beat back insurgents’ gains, nearly nine years after U.S.-backed forces toppled the Taliban’s hard-line Islamist regime.

The aim is to win over the population by limiting Afghan casualties while securing new areas, eventually turning control over to local army and police and allowing foreign troops to withdraw.

So many Afghan security forces are being recruited and trained so fast — the allies set an interim goal of expanding the Afghan army from 85,000 in 2009 to 134,000 troops by 2011 — that coordination is bound to lag behind, Afghan analyst Haroun Mir said.

Wednesday’s airstrike is unlikely to damage NATO’s relations in Afghanistan as much as unintended civilian deaths do, said Mr. Mir, director of Afghanistan’s Center for Research and Policy Studies. That’s because soldiers understand that “friendly fire” is an inevitable part of war, he said.

In April, German troops in the northern province of Kunduz opened fire on a vehicle deemed suspicious, killing six Afghan soldiers. Another mistaken-identity airstrike by coalition forces in 2008 killed nine Afghan troops in the eastern province of Khost.

Within the international coalition in Afghanistan, different countries’ soldiers have also been suspected of mistakenly killing their NATO allies.

In Ghazni on Wednesday, the Afghan soldiers were launching an ambush before dawn against insurgents, who were reportedly on the move, when NATO aircraft began firing on them without warning, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi said.

Five Afghan soldiers died and two were wounded in the airstrike in Ghazni’s Andar district, he said.

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