By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
May 29, 2009 - Footage of a controversial U.S. aerial bombing in Afghanistan this month shows the strike targeted Taliban militants, the commander of U.S. Central Command said today. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus told National Public Radio that he recently watched a video recorded by an aerial bomber involved in the May 4 firefight in Farah province between a joint U.S.-Afghan force and Taliban insurgents. The battle resulted in the death of Afghan civilians -- with U.S. estimates ranging from 20 to 30, but the Afghan government's as high as 140.
"I was in Kabul the other night [and was] briefed by the brigadier general who I appointed to carry out an investigation of this particular incident, and there is indeed video from a B-1 bomber that very clearly shows bombs hitting individuals who are the Taliban who are reacting to the movements of the Afghan and coalition forces on the ground," he said.
Petraeus said the video, which likely will be shown to the media at a later date, does not disprove that civilians were killed, nor did he dispute that they were. But the footage proves that the targets of the strikes were Taliban insurgents waging an ambush against the combined U.S.-Afghan force, he said.
"I think we agree, actually, that there were civilians killed in this incident along -- again -- with a substantial number of Taliban," he said. "This is a very tough case, because this was a very significant ambush of an Afghan force that had our advisers with it, and it was in response to that force -- literally rescuing that force at the request of Afghan political leaders as well as Afghan police and military leaders -- that our forces then moved in a very tough fight and these bombs were dropped."
Following the reports of high civilian casualties, Petraeus assigned a brigadier general to join Afghan counterparts in investigating the Farah province battle. Petraeus said he received a nearly three-hour briefing from the brigadier general and said the United States will apply "lessons learned" from the incident once they are fully understood.
Petraeus expressed concern about civilian causalities and described the tension between the need to protect the Afghan population but also to allow for coalition forces to use the capabilities – including air strikes – at their disposal.
"We are there to secure the people, to serve them; it's a big challenge," he said. "Indeed, we don't want our forces going into combat with one hand tied behind their back, but we also cannot take actions that might produce tactical victories but undermine the efforts strategically.
"And that's this tension, if you will, between, again, employing all the assets that we have, but making sure that we do it in a way that doesn't undermine the overall effort -- which is the result if, indeed there, [are] significant civilian casualties," he added.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, speaking about the Farah battle earlier this month, expressed the need to continue reducing civilian casualties in Afghanistan. In a May 11 news conference at the Pentagon, he cited one measure of progress -- a 40 percent drop since in the first few months of 2009 compared to a year earlier.
"There is a tremendous effort going on on our part to try and avoid civilian casualties," he said.