Alissa J. Rubin
and Rod Nordland

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN: Both President Hamid Karzai and NATO commanders ordered an investigation Sunday into reports that a family of eight had been killed in a coalition airstrike in eastern Afghanistan.

NATO and Afghan provincial government officials gave somewhat divergent accounts of the episode. The casualties took place in eastern Paktia province Saturday night when the family’s home was hit by a bomb, said Rohullah Samoon, a spokesman for the governor of Paktia.

Six children — four boys and two girls — were killed, as well as their mother and father, whose name was Safiullah. They lived in Sar Khilo village in the remote Gerdi Seri district, he said, adding that the circumstances of the bombing were not clear but that the operation was carried out without coordination with Afghan security forces.

However, a spokesman for the Afghan National Army in Paktia, Col. Fazli Khuda, said that it was a joint operation to target insurgent fighters from the Haqqani faction who operate there. Sar Khilo is a remote, mountainous area on the border between Paktia and Khost province and is dominated by the Zadran tribe, which is the same tribe as the Haqqani clan.

The Haqqanis, the insurgent group dominant in southeastern Afghanistan, are believed to be behind some of the bloodiest and most audacious attacks that have taken place in Afghanistan in the past three years, including the 19-hour attack on the U.S. Embassy in September and attacks in Kabul in April that targeted the embassy neighborhood as well as the Parliament and an area near a NATO camp.

According to the NATO account, on Saturday evening a combined NATO and Afghan force on a ground patrol came under heavy attack by more than 20 insurgents, said Maj. Martyn Crighton, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. “They were attacked by a large group of insurgents in southern Paktia and they returned fire and requested close air support and received it,” he said.

Plan defended

Also Sunday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended the Obama administration’s plan to wind down the more than decade-long war in Afghanistan, saying the United States is on “the right track.”

“We still have a fight on our hands,” Panetta said on ABC’s This Week.

“The American people need to know that. The world needs to know that ... but we’re on the right track,” he added.

Last week, NATO allies affirmed a plan to end combat operations inside Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Republicans, including Mitt Romney, have criticized President Barack Obama’s insistence on setting a firm timetable for the war because they say it shows a lack of commitment to the region and encourages enemy fighters to wait out a U.S. departure.

Panetta said critics of the plan should be mindful that the timetable has been embraced by some 50 allied nations.

“That is the plan that has been agreed to. And it’s a plan that is working,” Panetta said.

“And very frankly, the only way to get this accomplished — in terms of the transition that we have to go through — is to be able to set the kind of timelines that have been set here in order to ensure that we fulfill the mission of an Afghanistan that governs and secures itself,” he added.

Panetta also reiterated his criticism of the conviction of a Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA find and kill terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, calling the lengthy prison sentence handed to Dr. Shakil Afridi “disturbing.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.