By John D. Banusiewicz
WASHINGTON, Sept. 21, 2006 – Much has been made in recent days of an aerial photograph taken in Afghanistan that reportedly shows hundreds of Taliban fighters attending a funeral and the decision to refrain from wiping out the gathering militarily. At a Pentagon news conference today, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan said the rules of engagement provide all the flexibility needed to take the fight to the enemy and to protect coalition forces, but the decision in this case was not as simple as it might appear to be.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry said the intelligence available to the coalition commander on the ground did, indeed, support the belief that the gathering was for the funeral of a mid-level Taliban operative. "It was also reasonable to believe that, as he looked down at that photograph or looked down at the video, that a number of the people that were standing there at that funeral were Taliban fighters," the general added.
But it's what the picture didn't show that ultimately led to the decision not to strike, Eikenberry said. Just outside the frame, he said, was an Afghan village.
"And it also was reasonable for the commander to conclude from that village that there were probably innocents -- maybe sympathetic to Taliban, but innocents, noncombatants -- that had moved to participate in that funeral," the general said. And the photo couldn't rule out the possible presence of women and children, he added.
"So that commander made a decision, based upon our values as a people, based upon our values as a nation, that he would not strike," Eikenberry said.
The general noted that the enemy has no such values.
"I would point out to everybody that (the coalition commander's decision not to strike the funeral gathering) stands in very sharp contrast to an enemy that will kill religious leaders wantonly, that will kill teachers in order to intimidate parents to keep their children out of school houses, that will -- as they proved themselves last week -- throw a suicide-bomber at a patriotic governor of Afghanistan who came from his home in Australia to serve his nation. That's what distinguishes us from the enemy," he said.
"And with regard to our commanders' decisions, our commanders make decisions like this in the field every day, and I have complete confidence in my commanders that they always make the decision for the right -- for the right reasons and in the right way," he added.