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Pentagon officials say that an American airstrike was at least partially responsible for the deaths of Afghan civilians who were killed during fighting in western Afghanistan Monday, though officials say that initial reports of the death toll were "grossly exaggerated."
Initial American military reports that some of the casualties might have been caused by Taliban grenades, not American airstrikes, were "thinly sourced," a Pentagon official in Washington said Thursday, indicating that he was uncertain of their accuracy.
"It looks like at least some of the casualties were caused by the airstrikes," the official acknowledged. A second Pentagon official said, "It wouldn't surprise me if it was a mix," but added that it was too soon to tell.
But Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports that Pentagon spokesman Col. Greg Julian said Friday that earlier estimates of the death toll had been "grossly exaggerated." Afghan police told AFP earlier that more than 100 people were killed, including an estimated 25 to 30 insurgents, while other sources had put the count as high as 170 civilians killed. Colonel Julian did not comment on the reports that US forces may have been responsible for at least some of the deaths, however, saying that the investigation of the incident was still ongoing. CNN notes that the investigation is complicated by the fact that the dead have already been buried, in accordance with Islamic practice.
The New York Times also cites two Afghan villagers' descriptions of the fighting Monday.
Fighting broke out when Taliban fighters attacked Afghan Army and police forces at a police checkpoint on the main road some 500 yards from one of the sites that was bombed, said Muhammad Jan, whose village, Shiwan, was bombed.
The fighting did not reach the village or cause casualties there, he said. The Taliban pulled back into the village and then left the area. Later, planes came and bombs fell, but by then no Taliban fighters were in the village....
Jamil Ahmad, who lives in another bombed village, Granai, supported the account. "The battle finished and the Taliban retreated," he said, adding "They did not stay in the villages."
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.