By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
April 13, 2010 - Amid new reports of civilian casualties in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates re-emphasized today the top priority U.S. and NATO forces have put on protecting civilian lives, an effort he called critical to success of the Afghanistan strategy.
The secretary said the issue is always on the mind of Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
"I think no one has done more to try to reduce civilian casualties and to make the protection of civilians in Afghanistan a higher priority than General McChrystal. Every time I talk to General McChrystal, he talks about this," Gates told reporters during a flight to Peru, a day after an incident outside Kandahar City in which several Afghan civilians aboard a passenger bus were reported killed.
The International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan released a statement yesterday saying it deeply regrets the tragic loss of life in Kandahar.
"[McChrystal's] view is [that] the civilian casualty question is a strategic question in Afghanistan," Gates said. "And I think he thinks that is one of the greatest risks to the success of our strategy. And it is why he has been as aggressive as he has been."
McChrystal has imposed strict rules of engagement on forces in Afghanistan, limiting the use of close-air support, house-to-house searches and night raids to reduce civilian casualties.
Gates told reporters he agrees with this approach, but recognizes that some on Capitol Hill and in the military ranks express concern that they actually go too far. "I don't believe that," the secretary said. "General McChrystal doesn't believe that."
Referencing the ongoing investigation into a February incident near Gardez involving civilian casualties, Gates said people will be held accountable if appropriate.
"These [incidents] are critical in hampering our efforts in Afghanistan," he said. "And we investigate every one of these incidents, not only to determine if there is accountability or what actually happened, but also to see if there are some lessons to be learned in how to avoid it the next time around."
Gates expressed frustration that investigations that get the full story of what happened can take weeks or months, while the damage that results from these incidents is immediate.
"But let's also face the reality," the secretary said. "We are in a war. And our adversaries, the Taliban, mingle with civilians, they use civilians, they purposely put civilians in Afghanistan in harm's way. And I think we had better not forget that reality as well."