KABUL President Hamid Karzai warned NATO-led forces in Afghanistan on Tuesday they were at risk of being seen as an occupying force rather than an ally after a spate of civilian casualties, and said he would take unspecified action if they continue.
Raids on Afghan homes in pursuit of insurgents were "not allowed" and the patience of the Afghan people with the tactic had run out, Karzai said, underlining the challenge of winning popular support for an increasingly violent war.
"We see NATO from the point of view of an ally ... If they don't stop air strikes on Afghan homes, their presence in Afghanistan will be considered as an occupying force and against the will of the Afghan people," he told reporters.
The fiery speech also underlined Karzai's desire to forge an image as champion of Afghanistan and distance himself from the Western troops who have spent nearly a decade fighting the Taliban, as resentment against the foreign presence grows.
Karzai's rise to power in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban was due in no small part to Western support -- something his critics have not forgotten.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said General David Petraeus, the commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, understood that a "liberation force" could be seen over time as an occupation force because of incidents such as civilian casualties.
"We are in agreement with President Karzai on the importance of constantly examining our actions in light of that reality," Rear Admiral Vic Beck, director of ISAF public affairs, said in a statement.
Karzai sharply condemned NATO air strikes that inadvertently killed at least nine people -- most of them small children -- in southern Helmand on Sunday. The strikes were ordered after a patrol had come under fire.
Civilian casualties caused by foreign troops have long been a major source of friction between Karzai and his Western backers. Karzai warned the tactics were a violation of Afghanistan's sovereignty.
"They must stop bombarding Afghan homes ... If they do not, the Afghan government will be forced to take unilateral action," Karzai said, declining to go into detail about what his government would do if the tactics were not stopped.
U.N. figures show at least three-quarters of civilian casualties are caused by insurgents.
Asked about Karzai's criticism, White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated U.S. regret for civilian casualties and said the United States would continue its efforts to reduce them in coordination with NATO and Afghan officials.
"We do not operate in a vacuum in that country and will continue to work with President Karzai on this important issue because we take very seriously his concerns and we share them," Carney told reporters in Washington.
Holding up one finger, Karzai said he had warned NATO commanders "a hundred times" and hoped to meet them again this week to reinforce that message.
But with an army and police still not strong enough to fight the battle-hardened Taliban on their own, it was unclear how Karzai hoped to persuade NATO to give up a tactic they say has brought crucial gains against the insurgents.
"If more civilian deaths happen, maybe Karzai will actually do something, such as stopping Afghan forces from participating in joint operations," said Waheed Mujhda, political analyst at the Afghan Analytical and Advisory Center in Kabul.
"But this is dangerous. Afghanistan is in crisis and the Afghan forces do not have the capacity to run things on their own," Mujhda told Reuters.
HANDOVERS START IN JULY
NATO is racing against the clock to train Afghanistan's police and army before handing over all security responsibilities to the Afghans by the end of 2014. That process begins with several areas in July.
Tension boiled over at the weekend after the strikes on a compound in Helmand's Nawzad district. Graphic television footage after the strikes showed grieving relatives cradling the bodies of several children, including babies.
The commander of ISAF troops in the region apologized for the deaths, saying the strikes on the compound had been ordered because insurgents were using them as a base.
U.S. and NATO commanders have stepped up the use of air strikes and night raids in the past 12 months, arguing they are effective weapons against insurgents who often hide among the Afghan population.
However commanders have significantly tightened the rules for using both tactics over the past two years amid a growing outcry from Afghan leaders. Beck said this had helped reduce the number of civilian casualties caused by ISAF and that Petraeus had issued new guidance to troops two weeks ago.
"General Petraeus emphasized the importance of doing everything within our power to reduce the number of civilian casualties," Beck said.
(Writing by Paul Tait and Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)