In the long-awaited official report on the deaths of dozens of Afghan civilians during U.S. airstrikes in western Afghanistan last month, the U.S. military acknowledges that a bomber crew dropped thousands of pounds of bombs on buildings that may have contained innocent civilians, along with Taliban fighters.
A summary of the report issued late Friday says a bomber called in to help U.S. and Afghan ground forces during a battle with a strong Taliban unit "did not adhere to all of the specific guidance" required, and the violations "likely resulted in civilian casualties."
The 13-page executive summary - the only part of the secret report made public - describes a long, tough fight, during which several U.S. aircraft struck at Taliban forces moving through a village in Farah Province. But during the last two bombing runs, after dark, the report says the enemy fighters fled into buildings, and the air crews did not know whether there were also civilians inside when they dropped their bombs.
The report recommends several changes to procedures and training to ensure the mistake is not repeated. It says it is not possible to determine how many civilians were killed in the May 4 incident. But it says the U.S. investigation confirmed 26. It acknowledges the death toll may be higher, and it calls the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission investigation "balanced" and "thorough." That investigation concluded 86 civilians died. Some in the Afghan government have claimed 140 civilians were killed in the incident.
Speaking Thursday, before the report was released, the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, said he was satisfied that the air crews took sufficient precautions before dropping their bombs. And he said he did not see any grounds for disciplinary action. "This was a lengthy firefight, a number of hours, on the order of about seven or eight hours. It was very intense. It was handled very well by the young captain who essentially was in charge of it. And I thought what he did, with the capability that he had certainly was supportive of the overall requirements at the time," he said.
The report notes that several Afghan troops were killed in the fight, and several Afghan and U.S. troops were wounded. It also says many people from the village were seen fleeing the area earlier in the day, and it notes that Taliban forces frequently choose to fight from inside civilian areas, putting non-combatants at risk. During this battle, the U.S. military says one group of Taliban fighters fled into a mosque, which the air crew destroyed without realizing what type of building it was. The military does not think any civilians were killed in that strike.
The report calls for a review of what type of aircraft are used to support troops on the ground. Early in this battle, F-18 fighters were used, which are designed for such missions. But later, the mosque strike and the two strikes that may have caused the civilian casualties were handled by B1-B bombers, which were not originally designed for close air support.
Still, at Thursday's news conference, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said air strikes will continue when necessary. "There should be doubt in no one's mind that we will do what is necessary to protect our troops. The question is, 'how do we carry out our operations in a way to minimize the need for the use of close air support?'," he said.
Gates also noted that nearly half of all U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan are launched to support allied forces, so there will need to be better international coordination aimed at protecting troops without endangering civilians. U.S. officials say they can not succeed in Afghanistan without public support, and Friday's report says all troops must consider avoiding civilian casualties "a fundamental aspect of mission success."