(Rahmat Gul ~ Associated Press)
The deadly lapse in communication underscored the wide gaps -- and apparent mistrust -- between U.S. and Afghan security forces. President Hamid Karzai's office called the deaths "a tragic incident" caused by a lack of cooperation and communication.
U.S. officials have said they are wary of telling Afghan forces about nighttime raids by U.S. Special Forces, the kind of operation apparently being conducted early Tuesday, out of fear the target might be tipped off.
The U.S.-led coalition said a joint coalition-Afghan force on a mission against a suspected Taliban safe house was fired on first and responded with their own weapons, then summoned air support. It said no U.S. casualties were reported.
A presidential spokesman also said police initiated the shooting, but officers at the isolated post on a barren stretch of desert in the eastern province of Nangarhar said U.S. troops fired first.
"The Americans came close to our checkpoint with the lights of their vehicles off," said Esanullah, commander of the roadblock. "We shouted at them to stop, but they didn't, and they opened fire on us." He said eight policemen were killed and four wounded.
Officers at the post fired 49 of their 50 rocket-propelled grenades and called for assistance from reserve police during the three-hour firefight, said Esanullah, who goes by one name.
Karzai's spokesman, Karim Rahimi, said the incident underscored why the president has repeatedly called for increased cooperation between Afghan and international troops, which would help solve the problem of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
"The police forces were not aware of the coalition's operation," Rahimi said. "The police checkpoint in the area thought that they were the enemy, so police opened fire on the coalition, and then the coalition thought that the enemies were firing on them, so they returned fire back."
Maj. Chris Belcher, a coalition spokesman, said the troops were fired at by small arms and rocket-propelled grenades from two sides while on the way to conduct an operation against the suspected Taliban safe house.
"Afghan and coalition forces took incoming fire and they responded to it," Belcher said.
The coalition said in a statement that there was nothing "to indicate the opposing force was friendly. The individuals who fired on coalition forces were not in uniform."
"Prior to the onset of the mission, coalition forces coordinated with officials to ensure no conflicting operations were occurring in that area," the coalition said, without specifying if Afghan police had been informed.
Mistaken killings by international troops has been a problem in Afghanistan, and nighttime raids by U.S. Special Forces in particular have been criticized for causing civilian casualties.
Recent incidents prompted the upper house of Afghanistan's parliament to pass a resolution last month that would prohibit foreign soldiers from launching military action unless they are attacked first or have consulted Afghan officials. The resolution hasn't been acted on by the lower house.
NATO officials have said they are working on ways to increase involvement of Afghan troops on missions to cut down on mistaken killings, but those mechanisms apparently are not yet in place yet.
The U.S.-led coalition conducts counterterrorism missions, while the NATO force in Afghanistan, which includes some American troops, is responsible for counterinsurgency operations.
The eight police deaths in Nangarhar occurred in the same province where U.S. Marines killed 19 civilians and wounded 50 in March while speeding away from the site of a suicide bomb attack, casualties that sparked angry protests and denunciations of the U.S. presence there. A U.S. military commander later determined the Marines used excessive force.
At the scene of Tuesday's clash, bloodstains and shredded police clothing littered the ground and officers were angry.
"We are here to protect the Afghan government and help serve the Afghan government, but the Americans have come to kill us," said Khan Mohammad, a policemen who said the officers thought they were under attack by the Taliban.
Noorullah, a villager who lives about a half mile away, said: "The Americans are here for destruction. They are not here for reconstruction. Look, they are killing our innocent police. They cannot kill Taliban but they are firing at our police."
Violence has escalated in recent weeks. More than 2,300 people, many of them militants, have been killed in insurgent-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press count based on U.S., NATO and Afghan figures.
The International Red Cross said Tuesday that the impact of violence on Afghan civilians in is worse now than a year ago and that fighting had intensified significantly in the south and east of the country since 2006 and is spreading to the north and west.
In violence Tuesday, gunmen on motorbikes killed two schoolgirls in central Afghanistan, and NATO and Afghan forces killed 12 Taliban fighters in Zabul province in the southeast, said an Afghan army commander, Gen. Rahmatullah Raufi. A suicide bomber killed one policeman and wounded two in southern Helmand province, police said.
Officials also said the U.S.-led coalition and Afghan troops killed more than 24 suspected Taliban fighters during a battle in the south Monday.