By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 2008
A U.S. military review of an airstrike last week in western Afghanistan maintains that only five civilians were killed, Pentagon officials said yesterday, a finding that starkly contradicts reports by the United Nations and Afghan officials that the civilian death toll from the bombing was at least 90.
The completed review corroborates an initial assessment by the military of the operation Friday by U.S. and Afghan forces in a village in Herat province. The review determined that 25 militants, including a Taliban commander, and five civilians had been killed, the officials said.
"We did not kill up to 90 civilians as has been alleged," one U.S. military official said. The review "comports with our operational understanding" of the events, said the official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.
U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan were expected to present their findings to Afghan government officials -- possibly including President Hamid Karzai -- at a meeting Thursday, the officials said. The U.S. military planned to propose that the two sides conduct a joint investigation of the incident, they said. The Associated Press first reported the results of the U.S. review and stated that agreement had been reached on a U.S.-Afghan investigation.
The Associated Press reported yesterday that according to three Afghan officials, U.S. commanders were misled into striking the village. The Afghan officials said that the raid was aimed at militants who were supposed to be in the village, but that the operation was based on faulty information provided by the rival of a tribal leader.
The airstrike, which the U.S. military said took place after insurgents ambushed Afghan army commandos and coalition troops during a raid, came as U.S. and NATO forces escalated their reliance upon air power to combat an intensifying Taliban insurgency, in part because of a shortage of ground forces in Afghanistan.
The mistaken killing of civilians in airstrikes has long been a sore point between the U.S. military and Karzai, who has in the past demanded a temporary halt to airstrikes and other military operations in certain regions. Tensions over the issue have flared anew with the latest charges.
Senior U.S. military leaders have in recent days voiced doubt about the credibility of reports that scores of Afghan civilians died in the airstrike.
"I've seen the account stated from both the U.N. and certainly from the Afghan government. I've also seen it . . . discussed that, in fact, that didn't happen," Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a media roundtable at the Pentagon yesterday morning.
Mullen said he had not yet seen the results of the review ordered by Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, who commands U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan as well as U.S. Special Operations forces that operate in Afghanistan with Afghan army commandos.
Still, Mullen acknowledged that even a single civilian death harms the American effort in Afghanistan. "We know that when collateral damage occurs, that it really does set us back. So we work exceptionally hard to make sure that doesn't happen," he said.
The use of airstrikes in Afghanistan increased tenfold from 2004 to 2007 as a result of a growing Taliban insurgency and a lack of adequate ground forces, said Anthony Cordesman, a senior military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Nevertheless, Cordesman also found that in many instances aircraft make sorties without dropping major munitions, suggesting that the military is using considerable restraint in targeting.
Mullen said Thursday that there is "an urgent requirement" to send additional troops to Afghanistan. "We're looking to do that as rapidly as we can," he said.
Mullen, who this week met with Pakistan's senior military leadership on a U.S. aircraft carrier, also said that the U.S. and Pakistani militaries must intensify efforts to crack down on insurgents flowing across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, warning of "syndicate-like behavior" among extremist groups in Pakistan's tribal areas.