By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 22, 2010 - Expressing deep regret over civilian casualties resulting from a NATO air strike yesterday, Pentagon civilian and military leaders said today they support the strategy that puts as much emphasis on protecting the Afghan population as capturing or killing insurgents.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed to challenges the military is facing in Marja, Afghanistan, as an indication of the challenges U.S. and coalition forces face as they help Afghan security forces reverse enemy momentum there.
Mullen reported steady progress in Marja, while conceding that it's developing "a bit slower than anticipated." Still, the chairman said, he's encouraged by the work under way, the focus on protecting the population, and by the bravery being demonstrated by the Afghan people, their security forces and the coalition troops. "By all accounts, the Taliban's resistance has been at best, disjointed," he said.
"But we have experienced difficulties," the chairman acknowledged. "In some places, the enemy fights harder than expected."
And, enemy-emplaced roadside bombs "although crude, are still deadly," Mullen pointed out.
The admiral declined to share details about yesterday's air strike incident while the investigation continues, but he offered condolences to the families of those killed.
"Yesterday's terrible loss of innocent civilians reminds us of just how fragile any move we make can ultimately be," Mullen said.
Gates noted that Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has made protecting the civilian population a keystone of his strategy. "General McChrystal is more on top of the importance of avoiding civilian casualties, and the strategic consequences of civilian casualties, than anybody," he said.
Mullen said the U.S. military's emphasis on protecting Afghanistan's civilians has been reinforced throughout the chain of command. "It is the focus of the military leadership right down to the unit level," he said. But Mullen also cited the challenges these troops face in preventing civilian casualties in light of the "very difficult environment" they are working under, and the split-second decisions they must make in combat.
"The thing to remember is that we're at war," echoed Gates. "General McChrystal is doing everything humanly possible to avoid civilian casualties. But it is also a fact that the Taliban mingle with civilians, [and] they use them for cover."
This, the secretary said, "obviously complicates any decision process by a commander on the ground in knowing whether he's dealing with the Taliban or innocent civilians, or a combination of the two."
Asked if McChrystal's restrictions on the use of air power have gone too far in tying ground troops' hands as they fight the enemy, Gates deferred to his ground commander.
"My thought is that I'm not going to try and second-guess Stan McChrystal from 9,000 miles away," Gates said. "He's the commander. I have confidence in his judgment. I'll leave it to him to make those decisions about the right balance. Just as he is concerned about civilian casualties, he is also deeply concerned about the potential for American and coalition casualties."
Mullen reminded reporters of what he called "an essential truth" regarding warfare.
"War is bloody and uneven. It is messy and ugly and incredibly wasteful," he said. "But that doesn't mean it is not worth the cost. We must steel ourselves, no matter how successful we are on a given day, for harder days yet to come."
The chairman warned against overconfidence about progress being made in Marja, or in Afghanistan overall. One event, he said, can't be viewed as a trend.
"If we have learned nothing else these past eight years, it is that failure makes itself plainly clear, but success takes longer to see," Mullen said. "We will see success in Marja, but we must be patient. ... The long view here is the best view."
It's still too soon, Mullen said, to put a black-or-white label on operations in Afghanistan overall by saying that the coalition is winning or losing. "I think we are headed in the right direction, we have the right leadership, the right strategy, the right resources," he said. "And I think we can succeed."
Gates shared McChrystal's sentiment that the situation in Afghanistan has gone from "serious and deteriorating" to "serious but no longer deteriorating." He also expressed optimism about Pakistan's role in the recent captures of several high-profile insurgent leaders, including Abdul Ghani Baradar.
"What we are seeing is the importance of operations on both sides of the border, and a manifestation of real progress, on the Pakistani side, of dealing with the threats that I've talked about," Gates said.
Gates noted that the Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida all work together and share in each other's successes.
"So I think that the recent events have been another positive indication of the Pakistanis' commitment to stabilizing this border area," he said.