By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
May 11, 2009 - The U.S. military denies using white phosphorous during recent fighting with Taliban militants, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said American and Afghan officials will further investigate the recent Western Afghanistan battle. The Taliban alleges that U.S. forces employing the chemical during fighting with insurgents wounded Afghan civilians in the May 4 battle in Farah province, a claim the U.S. military refutes.
Gates, speaking to reporters at a Pentagon news conference today, said a high-ranking U.S. officer has been dispatched to work with the Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior to look into what happened.
"I also understand that General Petraeus is either considering or has already decided to send someone to Afghanistan from outside the country to investigate the tragedy," Gates said, referring to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command.
The defense secretary also suggested that the incident – and the Taliban's exploitation of civilian casualties – highlights the other battle being waged on the strategic communications front.
According to news reports, doctors allegedly voiced concern over "unusual" burns on Afghan villagers following the battle. The Taliban alleges these wounds resulted from U.S. troops using white phosphorous, which can cause burns, bone damage and death resulting from exposure.
A senior defense official speaking on background today denied that American forces used the chemical in last week's battle.
"We've checked our reports again, and no munitions containing white phosphorous were used by coalition forces in Farah," the official said. It is U.S. military policy to employ white phosphorous for illumination, marking targets or destroying buildings, but to abstain from using it against people, the official added.
Meanwhile, U.S. military officials in Afghanistan today reiterated that NATO's International Security Assistance Forces and coalition forces use white phosphorus in compliance with rules of engagement and international law.
U.S. military officials in Afghanistan today also declassified a report of 38 events in which insurgents have used or stockpiled white phosphorus munitions in the Regional Command East area of operations that includes Farah.
"The declassification and release are in response to claims that insurgents do not use, nor have access to, white phosphorus," the U.S. Forces Afghanistan news release states.
The data, obtained from incident reporting since February 2003, show that insurgents have stockpiled and used white phosphorus against personnel in both indirect fire attacks as well as homemade explosives, military officials said.
Gates today said provoking or exploiting civilian casualties is a "principle strategic tactic" of the Taliban. He added that the measured response and emphasis on accurate reporting by U.S. officials gives the Taliban a communications advantage.
"One of the disadvantages we have in these situations is that the Taliban don't tell the truth and they don't care what the truth is," he said. "And so when you're making it up, you can respond a lot faster than when you're trying to figure out what actually happened."
The defense secretary said that the U.S. has made progress reducing the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan – with a 40 percent drop since in the first few months of 2009 compared to a year earlier – but he noted that communicating these efforts presents as ongoing challenge.
"There is a tremendous effort going on on our part to try and avoid civilian casualties," he said. "But figuring out how to come out better on the strategic communications side of this is an ongoing challenge for us."