Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan Present U.S. With Strategic Problem

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009

KABUL, May 7 -- The deaths of more than two dozen civilians in fighting this week in western Afghanistan highlight a problem for senior U.S. officials who want to apologize quickly for any American mistakes while also arguing that the Taliban is the main cause of suffering in the country.

"We regret any -- even one -- Afghan civilian casualty and will make whatever amends are necessary," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters Thursday during a visit to Kabul, the capital. A day earlier, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, had said there may be another explanation for the civilian deaths in Farah province aside from U.S. airstrikes.

Gates declined to speculate on what might have caused the deaths until a joint U.S.-Afghan team investigating the incident completes its initial report. Afghan officials have charged that errant U.S. airstrikes caused the deaths, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has also attributed the deaths to U.S. strikes.

The truth of what happened in Farah may be less important than what the Afghan people believe took place in the remote western region. Gates said that a cornerstone of the Taliban campaign is to blame civilian deaths on U.S. troops. And he suggested that the best way to counter the enemy's strategy would be to reduce civilian casualties throughout the country. "Even if the Taliban create these casualties or exploit them, we need to figure out a way to minimize them and hopefully make them go away," he said.

The difficulty of the civilian casualty issue was evident in Farah, where anti-American protests erupted Thursday. The Associated Press reported that Afghan police wounded one demonstrator.

One way that the United States is seeking to reduce civilian deaths is by pushing American troops into Afghan cities and villages so that they live among the people who they are supposed to be protecting. The heavier U.S. presence should reduce the need for the controversial airstrikes. The higher troop levels also could lead to an increase in violence and U.S. deaths in the near term.

Casualties among American, international and Afghan security forces are up about 75 percent this year, Gates said. But Afghan civilian casualties have fallen about 40 percent over the same period, he said.

"What is critical for the success of the Afghan government and for us is that the people believe we are here to protect them and not to hurt them," Gates said. "And so whenever civilian casualties occur it tends to undermine that point."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company