By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
July 18, 2007 – Reports of civilian casualties in Afghanistan often are exaggerated, and this can be due to the fog of war or because of deliberate deception to incite Afghans against NATO, the commander of NATO forces in the country said today. The coalition has caused civilian casualties, U.S. Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force here, said during an interview today. But, he added, the scale of casualties has been blown out of proportion, and the Taliban, al Qaeda and other groups are exploiting the issue by issuing false claims.
"There has been a lot of information out over the last two or three months; it's been sensationalized," McNeill said. "Some of it has been misinformation, some of it disinformation, and some of it just not accurate."
Some of the most negative reports simply result from bad information, the general said. Initial reports are often emotional and impulsive and not based on fact, the general said. "The difficulty for me is that once those get out there, nobody wants to refute it," McNeill said.
NATO forces investigate reports thoroughly. But even acting quickly, it can take hours to ascertain the facts behind incidents. During that time, reports with exaggerated numbers have flown around the world and are accepted as fact, McNeill said.
Tarring NATO is a strategy used by the Taliban and insurgent groups, he said. U.S. officials have received intelligence reports of insurgents terrorizing Afghan civilians into making false statements against NATO. "They have compelled these reports because (the insurgents) know the (information operations) value, and they know that all they have to do is get it out there and the international press will do the rest of it," McNeill said.
Insurgents are not held to the same standard that NATO or governments are held to. They make claims and do not have to back them up with verifiable facts. "The insurgent is skilled at information operations, there is no question about that," McNeill said.
NATO does nothing in Afghanistan recklessly or without due consideration of all consequences, he said. "We are very careful in our tactical operations to mitigate risk to civilians and their property," he said.
But war is not a perfect science, and civilian casualties sometimes are unavoidable. ""Will it happen again? We'll do everything we can to preclude it," he said.
The general said NATO and Afghan troops are meticulous in their targeting procedures. "I have personally refused to take some shots at insurgent leaders because I could not be certain" that there wouldn't be unacceptable civilian casualties, he said.
Certain targets in certain situations require the general's approval. "When we're going after certain kinds of (terrorist) command and control, it requires my direct intervention to make a decision. And I'm not a cowboy," he said.