KABUL (Reuters) – Suicide bombers and militants firing mortars attacked Kabul’s airport during a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Wednesday, prompting a U.S. air strike that accidentally killed civilians, officials said.
The clashes and casualties overshadowed a visit intended to demonstrate U.S. support for the Afghan government and provided a sharp reminder of the risks associated with a more aggressive U.S. policy that is expected to increase the number of air strikes.
Hours after Mattis touched down in Kabul, militants fired high explosive ammunition including mortar rounds near the main airport and detonated several suicide vests in an attack claimed by both the Taliban and Islamic State.
Gunmen holed up in a nearby house battled security forces for much of the day.
U.S. forces conducted an air strike supporting an Afghan special police unit fighting the attackers but suffered a “missile malfunction”, causing several casualties, the U.S.-led NATO mission there said. It gave no further details.
“Resolute Support deeply regrets the harm to non-combatants,” the statement said. “We take every precaution to avoid civilian casualties, even as the enemies of Afghanistan continue to operate in locations that deliberately put civilians at very high risk.”
Mattis’ visit came after U.S. President Donald Trump announced a new strategy for Afghanistan, promising a stepped-up military campaign against the Taliban who have gained ground as they seek to re-establish their brand of Islamic law after their 2001 defeat.
The strategy will give U.S. commanders greater freedom to use American firepower against the militants but, speaking a few hours before the air strike, Mattis said they would do “everything humanly possible” to prevent civilian casualties.
“We are here to protect the Afghan people while we attack the terrorists,” he told a joint news conference with Ghani and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, accusing militants of hiding behind women and children.
Mattis said the Taliban could not hope for a military victory and promised a more “holistic” approach without fixed timetables and involving other countries in the region, including Pakistan. “I want to reinforce to the Taliban that the only path to peace and…