Pentagon admits US airstrike may have killed Afghan civilians
But the military said that the estimated death toll of the bombing this week – 100 people – was "grossly exaggerated."
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The US admits that it did conduct an air strike at the time and place, but it is becoming clear, going by the account of survivors, that the air raid was not a brief attack by several aircraft acting on mistaken intelligence, but a sustained bombardment in which three villages were pounded to pieces. Farouq Faizy, an Afghan radio reporter who was one of the first to reach the district of Bala Baluk, says villagers told him that bombs suddenly, "began to fall at 8pm on Monday and went on until 10pm though some believe there were still bombs falling later". A prolonged bombing attack would explain why there are so many dead, but only 14 wounded received at Farah City hospital.
The Independent adds that the incident sparked riots in Farah City, the capital of the province where the bombing took place, by Afghan villagers protesting the US airstrike.
The Associated Press notes that the US response so far to the incident has been "awkward." President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have all stated their regret about the civilian deaths, but the top US military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, "suggested the US military may have been framed." The inconsistency of the response highlights the dilemma for the US.
"Civilian casualties in Afghanistan, however they occur, pose a risk to our efforts here," Gates said Thursday during a visit to the war zone.
His unenviable chore: Express sorrow for civilian deaths without taking blame for an incident about which the details still are murky.
"We regret any, even one, innocent civilian casualty and will make whatever amends are necessary," Gates said. "We have expressed regret regardless of how this occurred."
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....
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.