By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
May 6, 2009 - U.S. and Afghan officials here have launched an investigation into a May 4 engagement in Afghanistan's Farah province to determine the validity of claims of high civilian casualties – claims that the senior military officer here said don't initially appear to add up. Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, said the joint investigation team hopes to "have at least the initial truth of what has happened out there" within the next few days.
Some information emerging about the incident "leads us to distinctly different conclusions about the cause of those civilian casualties," he said, but declined to share details until they're confirmed.
McKiernan walked reporters through the events leading to the investigation, as known at this point. A large group of Taliban operatives entered the area, beheading three civilians in a village in the province's Bala Bulak district.
The Afghan police responded, which McKiernan said "might have been a trigger to ambush the police." The contact between the two groups grew, with the police calling in the Afghan army for reinforcements.
"Eventually, it got to the point where the governor asked for U.S. support," McKiernan said, so U.S. forces provided close-air and other support during an operation he said "went on for hours."
When it was over, about 25 Taliban were dead. What's not so clear is the civilian casualty toll – a number the investigation will help to determine.
Casualty numbers being reported by the media "fluctuate wildly," McKiernan said, and he raised suspicion that the Taliban are generating negative U.S. publicity to their gain.
"It is certainly a technique of the Taliban and other insurgent groups to claim civilian casualties at every event," he said. "So we just have to do the right investigation on this."
The United States has a small military presence in Farah province, McKiernan said. Those operating there are conducting counterinsurgency operations in partnership with the Afghan army and police.