By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
July 25, 2007 - U.S. and coalition troops operating in Afghanistan are taking all measures possible to minimize civilian casualties, the top U.S. commander there told Pentagon reporters today. "We work very, very hard with both precision intelligence and information to ensure that we do not put civilians at risk," Army Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of Combined Joint Task Force 82 and the 82nd Airborne Division, said via teleconference from Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.
Rodriguez acknowledged that avoiding civilian casualties is a big challenge, particularly when the enemy doesn't wear uniforms and blends into the general population.
"We take the civilian casualties seriously and work very, very hard in every single situation to ensure that the actions we take are required militarily to accomplish the mission and are proportional to the situation we're involved in," he said. "And we review those continually to ensure that we are best protecting the people."
When casualties do occur, the troops strive to ensure the most accurate reporting possible to minimize misinformation. Rodriguez cited an example in which eight civilians were confirmed killed, but different media sources reported that number as high as 50. "So there's a significant potential for a wide range of reports in the newspapers or with the insurgent propaganda," he said.
Overall, Rodriguez said, the security situation continues to improve as more Afghan forces get trained and expand their responsibilities. "The Afghan national security forces are continuing to build their capacity and increasingly taking the lead during planning and operations," he said.
Progress is particularly good in the Afghan National Army, he said, but more trainers are needed to match those strides within the police force.
The Taliban continues to make up the biggest percentage of the insurgency, but the al Qaeda network is at work, too, and introducing the most foreign fighters into Afghanistan, he said.
Rodriguez cited challenges of the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border region but said troops are working to reduce the flow of insurgents across it. "There's about three areas where we have challenges with foreign fighters, and we continue to target them as best we possibly can," he said.
Cross-border attacks in June were higher than a year earlier, but Rodriguez noted that the rate dropped this month. He attributed the trend to Pakistani military operations along the border and the increased presence of troops from Combined Joint Task Force 82, NATO's International Security Assistance Force, and Afghan national security forces in larger sections of Afghanistan. These units "are helping the government of Afghanistan to extend its reach ... to the people and developing a stable and secure environment for the country," he said.
Rodriguez praised his own "All American Division" troops, who have endured multiple deployments but "continue to perform magnificently." They understand the difference they are making in Afghanistan and serve with the solid support of their families at home at Fort Bragg, N.C., he said.
"There is still a lot of work to do," Rodriguez acknowledged. "But with every project completed and every mission finished, Afghanistan's one step closer to the peace and stability the people of Afghanistan deserve and the enemies of freedom would deny them.