Military Justifies Attack That Killed at Least 33 Afghan Civilians

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 9, 2008

A military investigation has concluded that U.S. forces acted in legitimate self-defense in launching an August air assault against Taliban militants in Afghanistan that it said left 33 civilians dead, including at least 12 children.

A summary of the classified report, released yesterday by the U.S. Central Command, said the military's initial conclusion that only five to seven civilians died in the Aug. 21-22 raid was erroneous. The Afghan government and human rights organizations, as well as the United Nations, have said at least 90 civilians were killed by U.S. and Afghan ground forces and a U.S. AC-130H gunship in the village of Azizabad in western Afghanistan.

The discrepancy led to sharp tensions between the U.S. and Afghan governments and resulted in a decision by Central Command to send a senior officer from outside Afghanistan to reinvestigate the initial military findings.

But while the new inquiry, headed by Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael W. Callan, found a higher civilian death toll, it also concluded that "the use of force was in self-defense, necessary and proportional based on the information the On-Scene-Commander had at the time." The report said that, "unfortunately and unknown to the U.S. and Afghan forces," the militants who were the target of the raid "chose fighting positions in close proximity to civilians."

Callan's report, which said 22 "anti-coalition militants" were also killed in the attack, recommended that the military conduct more comprehensive, transparent investigations in the future and called for improved coordination with the Afghan government. Unlike the initial investigation, which relied solely on U.S. military reports, Callan's team took testimony from village elders, U.S. and Afghan soldiers, and Afghan government, human rights and U.N. officials.

The civilian deaths in Azizabad came in a year in which enemy attacks and U.S. military casualties have reached the highest levels of the seven-year war. Gen. David D. McKiernan, who commands both NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan, has called for four more combat brigades to bolster more than 60,000 U.S. and NATO troops.

Government and independent reports have said that Taliban fighters and other extremists are responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths -- estimated by Human Rights Watch at more than 1,600 in 2007 -- but repeated incidents of civilians killed in U.S. airstrikes have brought criticism from the government of President Hamid Karzai.

In a visit to Afghanistan last month, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates acknowledged the human and public relations damage caused by such incidents. He promised additional measures to minimize them and to conduct more transparent investigations. He also said that in the future, the United States will compensate the families of alleged victims even before completing its investigations.

The Central Command report said that "no condolence payments have been made by U.S. Forces" to Azizabad victims, although the Afghan government has paid $2,000 to "each family of the alleged 90 civilians killed, $1,000 for each person wounded, plus government sponsored trip to the Haj."

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell, traveling with Gates in Hungary, said in a statement last night that "the report shows that although no military in history has gone to greater lengths to avoid civilian casualties, we clearly still need to operate with more care."

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