The U.S. Defense Department says one of the aircraft involved in bombing an Afghan village a month ago, during an operation that caused numerous civilian casualties, violated rules designed to protect civilians. But a spokesman says there is no indication that the violation caused the casualties. Procedures for protecting civilians will be part of a 60-day review that the new U.S. commanders heading for Afghanistan have been ordered to conduct.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says he sat in on a briefing for Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday, during which the U.S. brigadier general assigned to investigate the civilian casualties incident summarized his report.
"There were some problems with some tactics, techniques and procedures, the way in which close air support was supposed to have been executed in this case, such that, at least with one of the aircraft involved, a B-1 bomber, that plane because of how it takes its bombing routes had to break away from positive I.D. [identification] of their target at one point to make its elongated approach," said Geoff Morrell. "That is sort of the fundamental complaint that was rendered, I believe, by this investigation."
The B-1 is a strategic bomber that was not originally designed to provide direct air support to ground forces, which was the mission in this instance. Still, Morrell says while the investigation faults the bomber's crew for violating procedures, there is no proof that resulted in civilian casualties.
"There's no indication that the B-1 breaking off from positive I.D. on its target resulted in the civilian casualties," he said. "That was not part of the briefing that we received. It was just noted as one of the problems associated with these events, not that it was the cause of the civilian casualties."
Morrell says U.S. forces took "extraordinary care" to protect civilians during the battle in Farah Province, in which Afghan and U.S. forces requested air support during a fight with a strong Taliban force. Afghan officials have said that as many as 140 civilians died, but the U.S. military has put the civilian toll at no more than 30, along with about 65 insurgents.
Morrell would not provide any figures, saying that the full report will be released soon. But he said the number of civilian casualties was "greatly outnumbered" by the number of Taliban fighters killed in the incident.
The Pentagon press secretary also said there was no indication in the briefing he attended of plans to discipline any U.S. military personnel for their actions that day.
"I got no sense from anything I heard today that charges are imminent or warranted in this case," he said. "
Defense Secretary Gates has long made reducing Afghan civilian casualties a top priority, and Morrell says there has been a 40 percent reduction so far this year. He also said further efforts to reduce civilian casualties will be part of a military strategy review the secretary has ordered his new commanders to produce within 60 days of arriving in Afghanistan.
Morrell says Lieutenant Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Rodriguez will outline the details of the military part of President Barack Obama's new Afghanistan strategy, which emphasizes protecting civilians, building Afghan government credibility and defeating al-Qaida and its allies - including the Taliban. The two generals are expected to take up their posts in the coming weeks, although they have not yet been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Morrell says the review will also look at how many American troops are needed in Afghanistan. About 7,000 of the expected 21,000 additional U.S. Marines have already arrived and the rest are expected during the next few months. Thousands more support personnel are also on the way. The current U.S. and NATO commander, General David McKiernan, had said he would need 10,000 more American combat troops next year. But Secretary Gates deferred a decision until the new commanders can assess the impact of the current deployment.