Afghan President Hamid Karzai summoned the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan on Thursday to demand an explanation for continuing civilian casualties caused by coalition troops. The commander, Army General David McKiernan, expressed "deep regret" about accidental killings in two recent incidents, and pledged to continue efforts to avoid such civilian casualties. The issue has also gotten attention from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
U.S. defense officials have been focused on the civilian casualty issue for a long time. But they say it is difficult to prevent all civilian casualties because insurgents often hide among civilians and sometimes try to deceive coalition forces into firing on them.
In addition, the shortage of coalition troops in Afghanistan has caused a higher reliance on air strikes, which are more likely to cause what the military calls "collateral damage."
That was the case in the most recent incident. NATO says six civilians died in an air strike on Monday in Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan.
In a conversation on Wednesday with U.S. troops, many of them recently returned from Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the civilian casualties "a serious problem," and said he has told his commander in Kabul that protecting Afghan civilians must be one of his main concerns.
"General McKiernan has taken some significant steps in terms of changing the way we go about our operations in Afghanistan, including by the Special Forces, to try and take even further measures to avoid civilian casualties and to avoid antagonizing the local population. This is something I worry about a lot. If we lose the Afghan people, we have lost the war," he said.
Secretary Gates also called for better cooperation between military units in Afghanistan and the joint civilian-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams. He acknowledged that when military operations kill civilians or destroy local facilities, they hurt the effort to improve the lives of local people and earn their trust and support.
"I am very concerned [about] how do we keep the Afghan people on our side by helping them understand that we are on their side? And so one of the things that I have talked to General McKiernan about, and that he is taking very seriously, is how do we partner on virtually all of these operations so that if somebody's knocking down the door, it is an Afghan knocking down the door, not an American, or not a German or somebody else? And I think we have made a lot of strides in that," said Gates.
In order to give Afghan troops a more prominent role in providing security for their own people, the U.S. and Afghan governments are working to nearly double the size of the Afghan Army to 120,000 troops.
But that will take years. In the meantime, the United States is increasing its troop presence in Afghanistan this year by about 50 percent, and other coalition countries are making smaller increases.
The top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, told ABC television's Good Morning America program this week that the goal is for foreign forces to provide better security for Afghans in the short term and to train Afghan troops to do as much of the job as quickly as possible.
"We need the combat troops to provide security for the Afghan people, which is what is missing right now, particularly in southern Afghanistan. And we need the trainers to train the Afghan army and the Afghan police, so that they can take the lead in providing for that security. In the long run, that is really the solution to the security challenge that is there to take care of the Afghan people, who I believe are the center of gravity of this whole situation in Afghanistan," said Admiral Mullen.
The increase in troops will also mean more ground operations and possibly fewer air strikes - the kind of attack that most often causes civilian casualties.