The top U.S. general in Afghanistan said Sunday there wasn't enough money in the world to replace the loss of an Afghan civilian, in comments that followed repeated calls by President Hamid Karzai for explanations of civilian deaths.
Gen. David McKiernan said international forces do make mistakes — "and for that I apologize" — but that U.S. and NATO forces are working hard to minimize civilian deaths during operations.
Karzai on Saturday asked McKiernan to explain allegations of six civilian deaths in two incidents. It was the second time in three days Karzai brought up the topic with McKiernan. On Thursday, the U.S. general was summoned to the presidential palace to explain other allegations of civilian deaths.
'Not enough money in the world'
McKiernan, during a news conference Sunday alongside the Afghan defense minister, was asked repeatedly about civilian casualties by Afghan media, underscoring how deeply the topic reverberates here. McKiernan noted that international forces investigate all allegations of civilian deaths and pay compensation for wrongful deaths.
"Apologies are not sufficient, so we do try to compensate families and communities where we've made mistakes. But that's not sufficient either. In fact, there is nothing I could do or say that would replace the loss of a loved one," the four-star general said. "There's not enough money in the world to replace the loss of a family member."
Karzai has long complained about civilian deaths caused by international forces. Last year, McKiernan implemented new rules intended to cut down on the deaths of innocent Afghans, but they still occur, especially in nighttime raids.
Karzai's office said three civilians were killed by international forces in Helmand province on Friday. The NATO-led force said three people were killed when its forces fired on a vehicle from which a man who was "posing a threat" was exiting. Two people inside the vehicle were also killed, it said.
Karzai's office also said three civilians, including a woman, were killed in Logar province on Saturday. The NATO-led force, though, said three militants were killed — including a "prominent" insurgent named Abdullah and a woman. NATO said its forces were attacked with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and that a search found explosives and military equipment.
"Earlier media reports identifying these individuals as civilians were incorrect," the NATO-led force said.
An extremely difficult issue
The issue of civilian casualties is extremely difficult in Afghanistan, where militants don't wear uniforms and even innocent villagers will defend their homes with gunfire if unknown soldiers enter their village at night. Journalists can rarely travel to the sites of battles to verify claims by villagers of civilian deaths.
At the news conference, McKiernan also said he had "no doubt" that Taliban militants will try to attack voting stations when Afghans vote for president in August, but that international and Afghan forces would provide security.
He said international forces are "interested in removing" radio stations and Web sites used by terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which McKiernan said are "spreading hate to people." He did not elaborate.
At a separate news conference, Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar said the Afghan government and international partners had agreed to increase the size of the country's police force — currently around 82,000 — by 15,000 officers who are to be trained and in place before the August vote. The increase is temporary for now but officials are studying how much bigger the force should be on a permanent basis, he said.
In western Farah province, meanwhile, militants attacked a security checkpoint near Farah city early Sunday, killing at least five police, said Baryalai Khan, a police spokesman. An unknown number of police were missing after the attack and officials were investigating whether any may have had links with the militants, he said.
Violence has risen across Afghanistan the past three years as a Taliban-led insurgency has gained steam. President Barack Obama has ordered an additional 21,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan this summer to bolster the record 38,000 already in the country.