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U.S. Troops Erred in Fight With Taliban That Killed Dozens of Civilians

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

U.S. military personnel on the ground in western Afghanistan and in the air failed to follow established procedures in a battle with the Taliban early last month that killed dozens of Afghan civilians, Pentagon and other Obama administration officials said yesterday.

During the battle, a Marine "quick-reaction" force came to the aid of an Afghan army unit attacking Taliban forces. Among the rules violated or poorly followed were poor initial planning for combat in a populated area and the dropping of a 2,000-pound bomb from a B-1 bomber on a building without proper visual and ground confirmation of the target, officials said.

Afghan government officials and human rights organizations have variously estimated that between 97 and 140 civilians were killed in the battle, in Farah province. Results of a major military investigation, presented yesterday to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, are to be released in summary form later this week, one Pentagon official said.

Civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes have been a major concern of Gates and other officials and are "one of the most dangerous things we face in Afghanistan, particularly with the Afghan people," Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal told the Senate last week in his confirmation hearing as the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces there.

"We've got to recognize that that is a way to lose their faith and lose their support," McChrystal said of the Afghans, "and that would be strategically decisive against us." McChrystal said that he would review tactics and the use of air power upon his arrival in Afghanistan and would probably change procedures.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said yesterday that "there were some problems with the tactics, techniques and procedures" in the battle, including "the way in which close air support was supposed to have been executed," including the fact that the B-1 bomber "had to break away from the target at least for a period."

But Morrell said that there was "no indication" that the targeting gap itself "resulted in civilian casualties," adding that it was just "one of the problems associated with these events."

The number of civilian deaths, Morrell said, was "greatly outnumbered by the Taliban killed in this incident." That conclusion appeared to be at odds with statements from other U.S. officials, including Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, who have said the number of civilian deaths may never be known. The military initially estimated Taliban deaths at 60 to 65, along with 20 to 30 civilians.

Another Pentagon official said that the targeting lapse may not technically have caused civilian deaths -- noting that Taliban forces had been seen running to and from the building and on its roof -- but acknowledged that there was no ground confirmation of who was inside. "What caused civilians dying," the official said, "was dropping a 2,000-pound bomb on them."

Several officials who were not authorized to publicly discuss the results of the investigation spoke about the matter only on the condition of anonymity.

According to accounts they provided, the battle began when Afghan army forces -- accompanied by embedded U.S. Army advisers -- decided to move into a group of rural villages after receiving reports that several local officials had been beheaded by Taliban fighters. Although the "quick-reaction" force in the vicinity advised against the operation, its commander, an Iraq combat veteran, agreed to provide backup if the Afghan force encountered difficulties.

"The Afghans were going to do it anyway, come hell or high water," one U.S. military official said.

When the Marines went to assist the Afghan force and came under fire themselves, officials said, they called in air support.

As the battle continued for several hours, initial air support from F-18 Hornets was supplanted by the arrival of a B-1, armed with 2,000-pound bombs. Such ordnance is standard but is normally used against groups of insurgents located in open areas, such as hillsides and fields.

Although the principal combat had ended by that time, observers aboard the aircraft spotted what appeared to be Taliban massing at a different building some distance away for a new assault. The large plane required what Morrell called an "elongated approach," executing a U-turn and returning to the target to drop its bomb.

Following a similar incident last fall in neighboring Herat province, Gates and the current U.S. ground commander, Gen. David D. McKiernan, put new procedures in place for the use of air power.

But in the Farah attack, "there were some procedures that weren't necessarily completely followed or followed to the letter," a Pentagon official said. "It was not a deliberate ignorance of existing rules but certainly a lack of knowledge of certain procedures" in planning and executing such operations. Another official said no senior-level U.S. commander was aware of the operation before it began.

Regardless of the procedures that are used, however, a senior administration official said, "if you're in a fight in a built-up area, in a village or a populated area, you can say at that point in time, you're not in a winning position."

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