KABUL: US air strikes killed 17 policemen by mistake during a battle with insurgents in the country’s southern Helmand province, Afghan and US military officials said on Friday.

Attaullah Afghan, head of the provincial council, said the air strikes took place around 9pm local time on Thursday outside the province’s capital of Lashkar Gah, during clashes between Afghan police and the Taliban. Afghan added 14 policemen were also wounded in the strikes.

Deadly incidents of friendly fire in US military support for its Afghan allies have happened before, but are not common. Afghanistan’s beleaguered security forces come under near daily attacks by Taliban insurgents even as the US is trying to broker a peace deal to end nearly 18 years of war.

A US military spokesman, Col. Dave Butler, said the air strike was called in by Afghan security forces who were taking heavy fire from Taliban fighters.

Before dropping the bombs, Butler said the US along with its allies on the ground sought to ensure the area was clear of friendly forces. An Afghan coordination force reported the targeted areas were safe from fellow personnel.

“Unfortunately, they were not and a tragic accident resulted,” Butler said in a written reply to a request for information on the deaths. He said both Afghan security forces and Taliban were killed in the strike.

“We’re examining the miscommunication to ensure it is not repeated,” said Butler. “We regret this tragic loss of life of our partners and are committed to improvement every day with every mission.” Helmand’s governor, Mohammad Yasin, said Afghan authorities were also investigating.

The two parties had supposedly “deconflicted” their forces — a military term for making sure neither side had troops in the strike zone.

A Taliban statement claimed US forces were behind the incident.

In the last year, the number of US air strikes has risen, most often in response to Afghan requests for assistance, but also in an intensified campaign against the militant Islamic State group, who are mostly headquartered in eastern Afghanistan.

A higher frequency of US air stri­kes has led to more civilian deaths, according to UN reports. A quarterly estimate by the UN issued recently said more civilians were killed by Afghan and US forces than by insurgents in the first months of 2019.

The Afghan forces “confirmed the areas were clear of friendly forces”, Butler said.

“Unfortunately, they were not and a tragic accident resulted. Afghan security forces as well as Taliban fighters were killed in the strikes.”

A joint delegation had been appointed to investigate the incident, Rahimi said.

A third Afghan official — head of the Helmand provincial council Ataullah Afghan — gave a higher toll, saying 18 Afghan police were killed and 14 others were wounded.

Butler said the US and Afghan security forces were examining the “miscommunication” to ensure it didn’t happen again.According to US Air Force Central Command, the US dropped 7,362 bombs in Afghanistan in 2018, the highest number since at least 2010.

Friendly fire incidents are not unheard of in Afghanistan, and have bred deep mistrust between local and foreign forces.

In one of the deadliest, 16 Afghan policemen were killed in 2017 when they were mistakenly targeted by US air strikes in Helmand. Civilian deaths from air strikes have also been increasing.

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2019