"We are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologize to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and, most importantly, the surviving family members of those killed by our actions," Petraeus said in a statement. "These deaths should have never happened."
Petraeus' swift apology Wednesday came hours after Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the deaths were the result of a "ruthless attack." He warned that the fight against "terrorism in Afghan villages" would never succeed if civilians continue "to suffer in the unjustifiable operations and bombings carried out by NATO and ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force]."
Western military officials told The Washington Post that Tuesday's attack began when insurgents launched rockets at Forward Operating Base Blessing, an isolated U.S. camp in the eastern province of Kunar. One local was slightly injured in that attack, and U.S. forces called in aerial support and artillery strikes to take out the insurgents.
But the apology suggests that the helicopter gunship pilots mistakenly identified the children -- ages 7 to 12 -- as the militants who had attacked the base. "Regrettably, there appears to have been an error in the handoff between identifying the location of the insurgents and the attack helicopters that carried out subsequent operations," the ISAF said in the statement.
Another coalition official in Afghanistan also told The Wall Street Journal that a miscommunication between troops and aircrew was to blame. "What seemed to have happened was that there was an error between what the people on the ground were passing up and what the helicopters got," said the official, who asked not to be identified.
The children's deaths are the latest in a decade-long series of botched attacks that have killed civilians rather than militants and undermined efforts to win over the support of ordinary Afghans. While about three-quarters of civilian casualties in Afghanistan are caused by militants rather than coalition forces, deaths such as these can fuel hatred toward U.S.-led forces and produce new recruits for the Taliban.
Petraeus has ordered that all attack helicopter crews and NATO commanders "be re-briefed on the tactical directive, reinforcing the need to be sure we protect the lives of innocent Afghans as we pursue a ruthless enemy."
"Every Afghan civilian death diminishes our cause," Petraeus said in a directive in August. "If we use excessive force or operate contrary to our counterinsurgency principles, tactical victories may prove to be strategic setbacks."