AT WAR: NATO Kills 27 Civilians In Afghanistan Attack, Says Afghan Cabinet

We are blogging the latest news about America's war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Email us at AfPak [at] Follow Nico on Twitter; follow Nicholas on Twitter. See archives of 'At War' here.

NATO troops kill 27 civilians. From AP:

A NATO airstrike killed at least 27 civilians in central Afghanistan, the Cabinet said Monday, the third time a mistaken coalition strike has killed noncombatants since the start of a major offensive in the south aimed at winning over the population.

The top NATO commander, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, apologized to the Afghan president, NATO said.

The Afghanistan Council of Ministers strongly condemned the airstrike Sunday in Uruzgan province, calling it "unjustifiable."

It said reports indicated that NATO planes fired at a convoy of three vehicles, killing at least 27 people, including four women and a child, and injuring 12 others.

UPDATE: Rethink Afghanistan's Derrick Crowe highlights this quote from an AP story on the incident:

"'This creates an opportunity for the Taliban to use this against the Afghan government and the Americans,' said Mohammed Hashim Watanwal, a lawmaker from southern Uruzgan province, where the strike took place. 'NATO has said that it will take care to avoid civilian casualties, but they don't follow through.'"

Among the dead were a 3-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl.

1:00 PM ET -- The fear of the 'domino effect'. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said Sunday that his country's troops would be leaving Afghanistan later this year. The announcement came one day after his coalition government fell apart over the issue of the war. Some background from the AP: "A marathon cabinet meeting that broke up before dawn Saturday ended with the walkout of the second largest party in the government, Labor, which accused the dominant Christian Democratic Alliance of reneging on a 2007 agreement to bring the troops home this year."

While the Dutch forces only represent around 2 percent of the foreign troops currently in Afghanistan, their withdrawal could lead to a 'domino effect' whereby other countries where the war is unpopular follow suit and pull out.

From the London Times:

There are concerns that other countries where public opinion is turning against the Afghan campaign could follow, notably Canada, which has had the biggest proportional casualty rate and is committed to withdrawing its 2,800 troops by the end of next year. Another concern is the continued presence of 1,000 Australian troops. The Canberra Government has repeatedly refused to take over the lead role in Uruzgan if Holland leaves, demanding that a big Nato power provide the main share of troop numbers.

And a similar take from TIME:

The danger now for the U.S.-led alliance is that the Dutch withdrawal might encourage other nations to draw back from the mission. European nations are growing increasingly hostile to the Afghan war, and many have dragged their feet over Obama's appeals for more troops to join the surge. "Counter insurgency is also about perceptions," says Nick Grono, deputy president for operations at the International Crisis Group in Brussels. "The Dutch decision creates an impression amongst both allies and insurgents and makes the NATO effort just a little bit more difficult. It raises questions about other countries thinking about their commitments. At the same time, the Taliban has an effective propaganda effort, and they will play it up as a lack of international resolve."

12:45 PM ET -- Military training mired in contract dispute. New report from the HuffPost Investigative Fund:

As the war in Afghanistan intensifies, a contract dispute in Washington is interfering with the Obama administration's plan to rebuild the Afghan national police into a military force with skills to fight the Taliban.

The dispute has left the U.S. government continuing to pay millions of dollars a month to a company that primarily trains recruits as civilian police.

Keep reading here.

12:40 PM ET -- Karzai takes control of election watchdog. The Guardian is reporting that the Afghan president has "unilaterally taken over" the country's Electoral Complaints Commission, which was responsible for forcing last year's election runoff, while Parliament was on recess. The move, the Guardian writes, has raised fears among Western diplomats, who were apparently shocked by the news, that upcoming elections could once again be plagued by widespread corruption. Read more here.

12:35 PM ET -- Filkins on the first week of the offensive, The New York Times' Dexter Filkins wrote a piece in Sunday's Week in Review reflecting on what the early stages of the offensive says about the state of the US's efforts to transform Afghanistan. Filkins outlines reasons to be optimistic about McChrystal's strategy, but also points out that a major liability in the still feeble Afghan forces, which continue to play only a supporting role, not always effectively, in military efforts.

For all the talk of the Marja operation being "Afghan-led," the truth, from the get-go, was that it was a mostly American and British show -- in directing, supplying and, most of all, fighting. From Marja itself, the picture was less than extraordinary: reporters embedded in the field said that the American Marines were leading the way, and that the Afghans were playing a subordinate role. A week into the operation, the Americans and the British had lost 12 fighting men; the Afghans only three.

At a news conference on the battle's third day, Gen. Sher Mohammed Zazai, the top Afghan field commander in the operation, gave an account of the fighting that contrasted almost entirely from that of the Americans -- and that appeared to be incorrect. "We are not facing any threat now except in south Marja where there is a slight resistance, not enough to be an obstacle to our forces," General Zazai said.

Minutes before, in a different briefing, American officers had outlined the substantial resistance the Taliban were putting up in the center of Marja and the north -- not the south. A Times reporter, embedded with the Marines in northern Marja, reported fierce fighting. For General Zazai not to know this seemed inexplicable.

12:30 PM ET -- Marjah is the "initial salvo." General David Petraeus said on "Meet the Press" that the offensive was part of a military campaign that could last up to 18 months. More on the interview from the New York Times.

10:30 AM ET -- Key tribal leader killed. A suicide bomb in Eastern Afghanistan killed 15 people, among them a key tribal leader, Mohammad Zaman Ghamsharik, who had commanded Afghan forces during the failed attempt back in 2001 to capture Osama Bin Laden at Tora Bora. TNR published a fascinating account of what went down at Tora Bora in December, which you can read here.

9:40 AM ET -- Restoring the Afghan government in Marjah. Marjah's newly appointed civilian chief is expected to visit the area for the first time Monday.

9:30 AM ET -- A tougher than expected Taliban. Coalition forces are expressing some surprise at how tough of a fight the outnumbered Taliban are putting up in Marjah. As one Marine spokesman put it, the U.S. military was continuing to encounter "pockets of stiff resistance." From the AP:

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said the U.S. and its allies had expected the Taliban to leave behind thousands of hidden explosives, which they did. But they were surprised to find that so many militants stayed to fight.

"We predicted it would take many days. But our prediction was that the insurgency would not resist that way," Azimi told The Associated Press in Kabul.

9:20 AM ET -- Other NATO strikes that killed scores of civilians. AP outlines a brief history of such incidents. Here are two from last year:

--Sept. 4, 2009: U.S. pilots bomb two hijacked fuel tankers in a German-ordered airstrike near the northern town of Kunduz, killing dozens of Afghans. German officials, citing a classified NATO report, say up to 142 people are believed to have died or been injured. Afghan leaders estimate 30-40 civilians were killed.

--May 4-5, 2009: An Air Force B-1 bomber drops a 2,000-pound bomb on a building during an overnight assault in western Farah province. Area officials say the attack killed 140 villagers. A U.S. report estimated that 26 Afghan civilians were killed along with at least 78 Taliban fighters and five Afghan police officers. Many bodies were buried before the investigation started, so the discrepancy was never resolved.