(c) 2009, The Washington Post
KABUL, Afghanistan The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday he had dispatched a joint U.S.-Afghan team to investigate U.S. airstrikes that killed more than two dozen people in the western part of the country and prompted an outcry from Afghan officials.
Although the International Committee of the Red Cross said that women and children were killed in the U.S. strikes, Gen. David McKiernan told reporters in the capital that it was too early to know exactly what had happened. "We're hopeful in the next couple of days we can have at least the initial truth," he said.
The fighting in western Afghanistan's Farah province began when Taliban fighters beheaded three civilians Sunday and Afghan police forces responding to the violence were overwhelmed, McKiernan said. The provincial governor asked for U.S. support in a battle that raged for several hours and included strikes from U.S. warplanes that were supporting the Afghans and a small number of American Marines.
Local villagers in the province told Afghan officials that they put women, children and the elderly in several housing compounds that were struck by the U.S. planes, according to the Associated Press. McKiernan, however, hinted that the U.S. airstrikes might not have been responsible for the deaths in Farah province. "We have some other information that leads us to distinctly different conclusions about the cause of these civilian casualties," McKiernan said. He declined to provide more detailed information until the U.S.-Afghan team was able to further investigate the battle.
The allegations come at a particularly sensitive time for the U.S. military and the Obama administration, which is pushing more than 21,000 additional U.S. troops into the country and shifting strategy. The new approach places a heavy emphasis on protecting the Afghan people from intimidation by the Taliban and bolstering development.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is in Washington, planned to raise the issue of civilian deaths with President Obama in their first face-to-face meeting on Wednesday, a statement from Karzai's office said. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also expressed deep regret for the casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes and vowed that the United States will work hard to "avoid the loss of innocent civilian life" even as it steps up its fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
McKiernan and other U.S. military officials have met extensively with local tribal leaders in southern Afghanistan in recent weeks to build support for the U.S. plan to bring 21,000 additional troops into the country. One of those meetings with tribal elders took place in Farah province, where the United States plans to grow its relatively small presence over the next several months.
In remarks earlier this week in the United States, Karzai talked about the problem of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, though he didn't mention the airstrikes in Farah province. He emphasized that U.S. success depended on "making sure absolutely that Afghans don't suffer -- that Afghan civilians are protected."
U.S. commanders plan to use the additional American forces to improve security, particularly in the southern part of the country where the Taliban are strongest, while U.S. civilian and military officials work together to increase the size of the country's army and police forces and improve its corrupt and inefficient government. "We are buying space and time to build these Afghan institutions," McKiernan said. He cautioned that the troop increase, which will bring the total U.S. force up to about 68,000 soldiers and Marines, probably would last two to three years. "This is not a temporary increase for the next six months to a year," he said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Kabul on Wednesday to make sure that preparations were moving forward for the troop increase and that soldiers and Marines were getting the equipment they needed. In recent months, he has been working to reduce the amount of time that it takes to get wounded U.S. troops from the battlefield to a field hospital to an hour or less. He is also focused on increasing the number of unmanned surveillance planes and other intelligence systems in the country.