United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has issued his “sincere condolences and personal regrets” for the large number of Afghan civilians recently killed by the US and its allies in air strikes. Gates pledged that NATO forces would do more in the future to prevent killing civilians, while adding “no military has ever done more to prevent civilian casualties”. He also said that he believes the key is, when US forces do kill civilians, they should apologize quickly and compensate the victims.
General David McKiernan, America’s military commander in Afghanistan, also said that he had issued a “revised tactical order” earlier this month which was meant to reduce the number of innocents killed. Key among this was searching homes and requiring multiple sources of information before launching attacks. He conceded that most of these rules were already in place, but hoped the revision would “re-emphasize” them.
The United Nations yesterday issued a report showing a dramatic increase in the number of Afghan civilians being killed in the war. 1,445 have already been killed this year in attacks, a 40 percent increase over all of 2007. The US and its allies are directly responsible for slightly under half of these killings, with the vast majority of those coming in the form of air strikes. The month of August was the worst since the 2001 invasion, with 330 civilians being killed.
The increased focus on the number of slain Afghan civilians stems from an incident in late August in which US air strikes killed at least 90 civilians in Herat Province, most of them children. The air strike appears to have been the result of a false tip provided by a rival tribesman, and has done serious harm to NATO’s reputation with both Afghanistan’s populace and government.
Though neither Secretary Gates nor General McKiernan mentioned the Herat incident specifically, the timing of the announcements suggests it was likely a key factor. Gen. McKiernan’s revised orders came slightly over a week after the Herat incident, although interestingly enough several days before US forces backed off their initial public claims that few if any civilians were killed in the strike and promised to review its findings. Prior to that announcement, the US accused Afghan civilians claiming the higher toll of spreading “outrageous Taliban propaganda“.
In additional comments, Gen. McKiernan said he believes the strategy in Afghanistan is “valid,” but that far more US troops are needed to implement it. This comes just one week after Joint Chiefs chairman Admiral Michael Mullen told the House Armed Services Committee that he does not believe the United States is winning in Afghanistan, and called for a “new, more comprehensive” strategy for the region.