By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 8, 2008 - As a follow-on investigation into an operation by Afghan National Army and U.S. forces in western Afghanistan that claimed civilian lives nears completion, a senior defense official here emphasized the U.S. military's strong record of accountability and follow-through. "No other military in the world goes to a greater extent to prevent civilian casualties," said Bryan Whitman, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. "This is something that we take very seriously, and when we have allegations of loss of innocent life, we investigate it."
At issue is an Aug. 22 air strike against a suspected Taliban compound in the western province of Herat that officials initially believed had unintentionally caused several civilian deaths.
Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan and NATO's International Security Assistance Force, requested a follow-on investigation early last month when additional evidence came to light indicating a higher toll than initial reports indicated.
Army Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, acting commander of U.S. Central Command, appointed Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael W. Callan to lead the investigation. Whitman said there's no set timetable for when the investigation will conclude, but emphasized CentCom's intent to finish it "in an expeditious fashion."
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates emphasized during his visit to Afghanistan in mid-September that avoiding civilian casualties remains a high priority for U.S. aircrews.
"We're very concerned about this; it's a high priority for us," Gates said at Bagram Airfield. "We work at that hard, work at it harder, and then take another look to see what more we can do to limit innocent people who are killed when we go after our enemies."
McKiernan reiterated that point during an Oct. 1 Pentagon news conference. "That certainly is one of my top challenges, to try to make sure we have the right measures in place to minimize the possibility of civilian casualties," he said.
He noted the distinct difference between how U.S., Afghan, and ISAF forces view civilian casualties and the enemy's point of view. "When we do have an operation that results in civilian casualties, it's been inadvertently caused," he said, "as opposed to our enemy, who causes civilian casualties on purpose."
McKiernan said his command is working with the Afghan government to come up with better ways to deal with future allegations of civilian casualties. "We need to quickly combine our efforts to jointly investigate these allegations instead of separate investigations," he said.
Whitman emphasized today that civilian casualties create not just a humanitarian issue, but also an operational challenge. "Everybody recognizes that civilian casualties in themselves are tragic," he said. "But it also sets back what you are trying to do with respect to the conflict there and taking on the insurgents."