By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
May 7, 2009 - The United States, coalition and Afghan government regret even one innocent civilian death, and they will continue to do all they can to avoid civilian casualties, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in Kabul today. Gates spoke at a news conference after a day of visiting U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
A joint investigative team is looking into reports of civilian casualties during a May 4 operation against Taliban insurgents in western Afghanistan and has visited the site in Farah province. The team is investigating differing accounts of the events leading up to the casualties. Those accounts include allegations that the Taliban tossed grenades into homes to "frame" Afghan and coalition forces.
What is known is that a large group of Taliban operatives entered the area and beheaded three civilians in a village in the province's Bala Bulak district. Afghan police responded, and the Taliban ambushed the officers. The police called the Afghan National Army for support.
"Eventually, it got to the point where the governor asked for U.S. support," Army Gen. David D. McKiernan said yesterday. McKiernan commands NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. U.S. forces provided close-air and other support for the operation, which lasted 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.
"I'm well aware of this," Gates said during the news conference. "The United States and coalition partners do everything we can to avoid civilian casualties."
"We regret any – even one – innocent civilian casualty, and will make whatever amends are necessary," Gates said. "We have expressed regret regardless of how this occurred."
Since the beginning of the year, civilian casualties in Afghanistan are down 40 percent, Gates said. Casualties against U.S., coalition and Afghan security forces are up 75 percent. "We are doing everything we can to avoid civilian casualties," while the Taliban are targeting civilians for their own gain, Gates said.
The Taliban use civilians as shields and mingle with civilians as they attack NATO and Afghan forces, the secretary said.
"While there have been civilian casualties caused by American and NATO troops, they have been accidental," he said. "When the Taliban cause casualties, they are on purpose."
The bottom line is that "exploiting civilian casualties and causing civilian casualties" is a fundamental part of the Taliban strategy, Gates said.
The Afghan people must believe that the coalition is on their side, Gates said. Civilian casualties break down this trust, he acknowledged, noting that the Taliban know this as well.