U.S.: Airstrike killed 33 Afghan civilians

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates talks to the media during a Southeastern Europe Defense Ministerial in southwestern Macedonia on Wednesday.Boris Grdanoski / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The military said Wednesday that U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan on Aug. 22 killed 33 civilians, far more than previously acknowledged. While expressing regret, it blamed the Taliban, the targets, for taking up fighting positions near civilians.

The civilian toll of 33 compares with an original U.S. estimate of five to seven. The Afghan government and U.N. investigators claimed there were 90 civilian deaths. In a summary of its findings from a detailed investigation, Central Command said 22 militants died in the assault on a village compound intended to kill or capture an unnamed "high-value individual."

U.S. Central Command spokesman Rear Adm. Greg Smith said the matter is considered closed and no disciplinary action is contemplated against anyone, in light of the investigation's conclusion that due diligence was exercised and there was no violation of the laws of war.

Working with the crew of an AC-130H gunship crew, the on-scene U.S. commander established positive identification of legitimate targets before ordering attacks with small arms and air power, according to the summary signed by the chief investigating officer, Brig. Gen. Michael Callan.

"Unfortunately and unknown to the U.S. and Afghan forces, the (militants) chose fighting positions in close proximity to civilians," the report said.

Of the 33 dead civilians, the U.S. investigators counted eight men, three women and 12 children. The 10 others were undetermined.

Credible intelligence?
The acting commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, asserted that despite the civilian deaths, U.S. forces involved in the attack in western Herat province acted based on credible intelligence, in self-defense and in line with their rules of engagement.

"We are deeply saddened at the loss of innocent life in Azizabad," Dempsey said. He blamed the Taliban.

"We go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties in Afghanistan in all our operations, but as we have seen all too often, this ruthless enemy routinely surround themselves with innocents," he said.

Central Command rejected the claims of the Afghan government and U.N. officials, saying they relied primarily on statements from villagers and limited forensics and had no access to U.S. intelligence.

"Their reports lack independent evidence to support the allegations of higher numbers of civilian casualties," the U.S. report said.

The issue of civilian deaths has outraged Afghans and strained relations with foreign forces in Afghanistan to help fight the insurgency. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has warned U.S. and NATO for years that they must stop killing civilians on bombing runs against militants, saying the deaths undermine his government and the international mission.

The investigation was based on 28 interviews resulting in more than 20 hours of recorded testimony from Afghan government officials, Afghan village elders, officials from nongovernmental organizations, U.S. and Afghan service members, 236 documents and 11 videos, according to Central Command.

On Sept. 2, less than two weeks after the raid in the village of Azizabad, NATO's commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, issued a revised order meant to govern the tactics and procedures followed by U.S. forces when engaging in air and ground fights against the insurgents.

Several days after that, McKiernan ordered a second U.S. investigation into the deaths because pictures and video images surfaced that appeared to show 30 to 40 victims, including at least 10 dead children, laid out in a village mosque.

Accounts in dispute
Zemeri Bashary, Afghanistan's Interior Ministry spokesman, said Wednesday that he had not yet seen the new U.S. report, but that the Afghan government stood by its original findings.

A joint delegation of Afghan lawmakers and local officials investigated within days of the strike and concluded that around 90 Afghan civilians, including 60 children, were killed. That finding was backed by a preliminary U.N. report.

McKiernan has said there are not enough U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan, so the military is relying more heavily on air power — a greater risk in a conflict where insurgents don't wear uniforms and intentionally mix with the general population for protection.

In a trip to Afghanistan in mid-September, Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered the people of Afghanistan his "personal regrets" over the civilian deaths and said he would try to improve the accuracy of air operations.

Gates: More forces needed
Separately on Wednesday, Gates urged Eastern European leaders to shift their military efforts from Iraq to Afghanistan, where their forces are more urgently needed.

Speaking at a meeting of the Southeast European Defense Ministerial in Macedonia, Gates said that as the security situation in Iraq continues to improve, countries should consider filling the "urgent need" for trainers in Afghanistan.

"Your assistance will not only help Afghanistan better protect and care for its citizens, it will also reinforce your important role in insuring peace and stability around the globe," Gates said during a press conference with the Macedonian minister of defense.

Combined, the 11 members of SEDM (not counting the United States) have nearly 5,100 troops already in Afghanistan. Just one of the member nations, Bosnia-Herzegovina, has no troops there. It was not immediately clear how many of those nations have troops in Iraq.