THE DUELING accounts of a U.S. raid in western Afghanistan on Aug. 21 that may -- or may not -- have killed up to 90 Afghan civilians have a woeful familiarity. Both Afghan and United Nations officials say that their investigators corroborated the deaths and that U.S. special forces were misled into attacking a compound where a wake was taking place. American officials angrily -- if anonymously -- insist that no physical evidence backs accounts from villagers who may have been coerced by the Taliban. U.S. commanders still believe the raid succeeded in killing a Taliban commander and some 25 militants, along with five civilians.
What's sure is that this sort of controversy -- as well as many undisputed episodes of civilian deaths -- have dogged U.S. forces in Afghanistan ever since the war began nearly seven years ago. More often than not, the wrongful killings are attributed to airstrikes. In the latest case, a compound was reportedly attacked with an AC-130 gunship, a weapon capable of massive and indiscriminate fire that has been implicated in shootings of civilians in the past.
The Pentagon has, at least, become more sensitive to Afghan casualties in recent years, partly at the insistence of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Procedures for authorizing air attacks have been tightened more than once, and officials can readily cite instances in which senior Taliban commanders have been located and then spared from airstrikes because of concern over nearby civilians. The United States proposed a joint commission with the Afghan government to investigate the Aug. 21 incident and also has promised investigations into three other U.S. airstrikes in July that Afghan reports said killed as many as 78 civilians.
Notably, the proportion of Afghan civilian deaths caused by U.S. and coalition forces is down this year. But that toll -- 255 in the first half of 2008 -- is still tragically high. As Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged last week, any collateral damage or loss of life "really does set us back." Civilian deaths are helping to strengthen Afghan resentment of foreign forces, and a U.N. study showed they motivate many of the suicide bombings. Adm. Mullen also seems to understand that one of the best ways to reduce civilian deaths is to rely more on counterinsurgency operations by ground forces and less on airstrikes. He says that there is "an urgent requirement" to send additional troops to Afghanistan -- and he's right.