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 Britain announced it would turn over control of a violence-plagued southern district to U.S. forces.
U.S. Gen. David 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," 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 Mir, director of the Afghan 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. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said.
Five Afghan soldiers died and two were wounded in the airstrike in Ghazni's Andar district, he said.
"This is not the first time such an incident has happened, but we wish that at least this would be the last one," Azimi said.
NATO later said in a statement that one of its patrols in the area mistook the Afghan soldiers for insurgents and targeted them with precision-guided munitions.
Violence has been increasing across Afghanistan, coinciding with the arrival of thousands of American soldiers for a new push to try to establish Afghan government control in the south, the Taliban's strongest area of influence.
NATO said three American troops were killed by a roadside bomb in the south Tuesday. It did not identify them or give any other details.
Last month was the deadliest for international forces since the war began, with 103 killed, including 60 Americans.
Britain announced Wednesday that it will withdraw its troops from a volatile district in the south, turning over responsibility to U.S. forces. The Sangin valley in Helmand province has been the deadliest area for British forces, accounting for 99 of its 312 soldiers killed since 2001.
Britain's military said U.S. forces would move into Sangin from October. Britain has about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, most based in Helmand.
Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the No. 2 U.S. general in Afghanistan and the operational chief for the allied forces, told reporters Wednesday that the British move is part of his effort to consolidate and better organize forces in Helmand.
Rodriguez rejected the notion that the U.S. is bailing out British forces, noting that those troops have taken high losses in Sangin and will remain there through what may be the highest violence of the war this summer.
The move will concentrate British forces "where we need them most," Rodriguez told reporters at the Pentagon by remote video from his office in Afghanistan.
Rodriguez said when the move happens, it will leave U.S. Marines in control of the northern Helmand River Valley, British forces toward the middle and U.S. forces in the south.
Another NATO airstrike on Tuesday in eastern Paktika province killed several suspected insurgents. Several others were arrested, the alliance said.
NATO said a coalition aircraft fired a precision-guided munition to repel militants who were firing at Afghan and coalition forces from an area near an unmarked mosque in Yahya Khel district. Windows of the mosque were broken in the fighting.
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan in Washington and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.