The top U.S. military officer says U.S. forces have some responsibility for civilian deaths during a battle in Afghanistan's Farah Province in early May, but he says there is no basis for disciplinary action against any American troops.
At a news conference Thursday, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, was asked whether U.S. forces were responsible for civilian deaths in the Farah incident.
"There certainly is responsibility," said Admiral Mullen.
But Admiral Mullen said it was a long and difficult battle against a Taliban unit, in which U.S. forces did many things right, and whatever mistakes were made do not rise to the level that would require disciplinary action.
"At least in my review, I found nothing that would lead to the need to take any specific action along the lines of what you're asking," he said.
Mullen said he is satisfied that U.S. air crews took adequate steps to confirm their targets and try to ensure that civilians would not be harmed by their bombs. A spokesman previously said one bomber crew made some mistakes, but would not say whether those mistakes led to any of the civilian casualties.
Admiral Mullen was discussing a much-anticipated U.S. military report on the incident, which had been expected to be made public last week. He says the report reveals some problems in the 'command and control' process and a need to have U.S. forces better prepared for situations in which civilians might be at risk.
"It exposed some deficiencies from a training standpoint that we have to back all the way up into our schools here, and then make sure that that's trained to in our rehearsal exercises, etcetera," said Mullen.
Admiral Mullen said it may never be possible to know exactly how many civilians were killed in the incident. Afghan officials have said as many as 140 civilians died, but the U.S. military initially put the civilian toll at no more than 30, along with about 65 insurgents.
At the same news conference, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the official report should be published in the next day or two, after review by officials in several government agencies. Gates said increasing efforts to protect civilians will be a top priority for General Stanley McChrystal, his newly arrived commander in Afghanistan.
"It is clear that we need to do much more to overcome what I believe is one of our greatest strategic vulnerabilities," said Secretary Gates. "The Afghan people must be reassured that U.S. and NATO forces are there as friends, partners and, along with Afghan security forces, their protectors as well."
Secretary Gates also said concern about civilian casualties helped convince NATO allies to agree to a new command structure for Afghanistan, with a three-star American general as deputy commander to focus full-time on day-to-day operations. But while trying to protect civilians, Gates said U.S. and NATO forces will continue to do whatever is necessary to protect themselves, and Admiral Mullen said that will continue to include the use of air power when it is necessary.