By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009
KABUL, May 6 -- The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday he had dispatched a joint U.S.-Afghan team to investigate U.S. airstrikes that killed more than two dozen people in the western part of the country and prompted an outcry from Afghan officials.
Although the International Committee of the Red Cross said women and children were killed in the U.S. strikes, Army Gen. David D. McKiernan told reporters in the capital it was too early to know exactly what had happened. "We're hopeful in the next couple of days we can have at least the initial truth," he said.
The fighting in western Afghanistan's Farah province began when Taliban fighters beheaded three civilians Sunday and Afghan police forces responding to the violence were overwhelmed, McKiernan said. The provincial governor asked for U.S. support in a battle that raged for several hours and included strikes from American warplanes that were supporting the Afghans and a small number of U.S. Marines.
Local villagers told Afghan officials that they put women, children and the elderly in several housing compounds that were struck by the U.S. planes, according to the Associated Press. McKiernan, however, hinted that the American airstrikes might not have been responsible for the deaths in Farah. "We have some other information that leads us to distinctly different conclusions about the cause of these civilian casualties," McKiernan said. He declined to provide more detailed information until the U.S.-Afghan team was able to investigate further.
A U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that "the Taliban went to a concerted effort to make it look like the U.S. airstrikes caused this." The official did not offer evidence to support the claim, and could not say what had caused the deaths.
The allegations came at a particularly sensitive time for the U.S. military and the Obama administration, which is pushing more than 21,000 additional American troops into the country and shifting strategy. The new approach emphasizes protection of Afghan civilians from intimidation by the Taliban and bolstering development.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is in Washington, met with President Obama in their first face-to-face meeting. Obama offered his condolences over the civilian deaths and promised an investigation. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also expressed deep regret for the casualties caused by American airstrikes and vowed that the United States will work hard to "avoid the loss of innocent civilian life" even as it steps up its fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
McKiernan and other American military officials have met extensively with local tribal leaders in southern Afghanistan in recent weeks to build support for the additional U.S. troops. One of those meetings with tribal elders took place in Farah, where the Americans plan to increase the relatively small presence over the next several months.
In remarks this week in the United States, Karzai talked about the problem of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, though he did not mention the airstrikes in Farah. He emphasized that U.S. success depended on "making sure absolutely that Afghans don't suffer -- that Afghan civilians are protected."
U.S. commanders plan to use the additional American forces to improve security, particularly in the southern part of the country where the Taliban is strongest, while U.S. civilian and military officials work together to increase the size of the country's army and police forces and improve its corrupt and inefficient government. "We are buying space and time to build these Afghan institutions," McKiernan said. He cautioned that the force increase, which will raise the number of American troops to about 68,000, probably would last as long as two to three years.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived in Kabul on Wednesday to make sure that preparations were moving forward for the troop increase and that soldiers and Marines were getting the equipment they needed.
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Washington contributed to this report.