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Gates Apologizes for Afghan Civilian Deaths

General Petraeus, Commander of ISAF Afghanistan, chats with US Defense Secretary Gates upon Gates' arrival in Kabul, March 7, 2011

General Petraeus, Commander of ISAF Afghanistan, chats with US Defense Secretary Gates upon Gates' arrival in Kabul, March 7, 2011

comments came during joint press briefing Monday in Kabul with Afghan President Karzai, who accepted the apology

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the United States is in a good position to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July, but that there will be a continued U.S. presence in the country for years to come. At a news conference in Kabul, Gates also apologized for recent civilian deaths caused by coalition forces.

Secretary Gates says coalition and Afghan troops have worked hard during the winter to expand security zones in several parts of the country, including the Taliban heartland in the south. He says Afghan President Hamid Karzai will soon announce the first areas where Afghan troops will take responsibility for security, and that will create the structure for the July troop reduction President Barack Obama promised when he approved the surge of forces to Afghanistan over a year ago.

“While no decisions on numbers have been made, in my view we will be well-positioned to begin drawing down some U.S. and coalition forces this July, even as we redeploy others to different parts of the country,” he said.

U.S. officials have repeatedly said the drawdown will be gradual and based on security conditions, but Gates said U.S. troop totals, now about 150,000, will remain high well after July. He says the United States is seeking a long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan, even after the scheduled transfer of full security authority at the end of 2014.

“The United States is open to having some presence here in terms of training and assistance, perhaps making use of facilities made available to us by the Afghan government for those purposes. We have no interest in permanent bases, but if the Afghans want us here, we are certainly prepared to contemplate that,” Gates said.

Gates said negotiations on the long-term relationship will begin next week, with a visit here by an American delegation.

The secretary also apologized for civilian deaths caused by U.S. Forces in recent days. Nine Afghan boys were killed in a U.S. airstrike in the eastern province of Kunar last week. The pilots mistook the boys for insurgents. “This breaks our heart. Not only is their loss a tragedy for the families, it is a setback for our relationship with the Afghan people, whose security is our chief concern,” he said.

Gates said more than 80 percent of the civilian casualties in the Afghan war are caused by insurgents. U.S. officials frequently note that the insurgents target civilians, while deaths caused by coalition forces are accidents that they work hard to avoid.

President Karzai accepted Gates' apology but repeated his insistence that coalition forces bring civilian casualty figures to zero.