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THE WORLD

U.S. general seeks to curb Afghan civilian deaths

McKiernan, leader of NATO forces there, orders his troops to be prudent. He also wants additional brigades.

September 17, 2008|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — The commander of foreign troops in Afghanistan said Tuesday that he had issued new orders aimed at reducing the number of civilians accidentally killed in airstrikes and raids.

Army Gen. David D. McKiernan also said he needed more troops than previously promised. After an additional Army brigade arrives early next year, McKiernan said, he will need three more brigades -- potentially more than 20,000 troops once support units are added.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived in Afghanistan late Tuesday to meet with McKiernan and other U.S. and Afghan officials. The secretary is to talk with U.S. commanders about the use of airstrikes, which have been blamed for rising civilian casualties.

McKiernan, who commands the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's forces in Afghanistan, said that although it's difficult to completely avoid civilian casualties in fighting an insurgency, it's important to limit them so support for the government can grow.

McKiernan said he issued his orders Sept. 2, to reinforce the need for using proportional force in reacting to attacks by the Taliban or other extremist groups. Searches of homes should be led by Afghan soldiers when possible, he said.

"When you are trying to conduct a counterinsurgency, part of that is making people feel secure, and it is also trying to connect them with their government institutions and not become . . . an enemy of the people," McKiernan said.

A United Nations report issued Tuesday says U.S. and NATO airstrikes have killed 395 Afghan civilians this year.

The issue of civilian deaths was thrown into sharp relief by a U.S.-led raid in western Afghanistan last month in which 92 civilians were killed, according to United Nations estimates. The U.S. military has said about seven civilians died, though it has begun a high-level review.

The incident deeply angered the Afghan government. President Hamid Karzai, who is to meet with Gates today, is expected to again press the issue.

McKiernan said the U.S. needs to be quicker to launch investigations and joint inquiries in such cases.

"We are putting a new emphasis on having an ability to get information out quicker when there is an allegation of civilian casualties," he said.

The U.S. has stepped up military operations in Afghanistan this year in response to growing attacks by militants. McKiernan said attacks were up 30%, the result of shifting insurgent tactics, a higher number of international forces and a deteriorating security situation in Pakistan.

It was too early to say whether recent moves by the new Pakistani government, including sending army forces into tribal areas near the Afghanistan border, were having an effect, McKiernan said. Attacks are down along the border but on the rise deeper in the country.

"Militant groups have been able to create freedom of maneuver into Afghanistan and been able to resupply the insurgency, and been able to send an increasing number of foreign fighters into Afghanistan," he said.

To counter the increasing violence and speed progress in the war, McKiernan said, he needs a permanent increase in troop levels and other assets such as reconnaissance planes.

Although President Bush has said he will send an additional brigade, McKiernan said he needs three brigades beyond that. There are about 33,000 U.S. troops in the country.

McKiernan said the brigade arriving early next year, roughly 3,500 troops, would be sent to eastern Afghanistan to counter an increase in violence there. The need for the three other brigades requested by his predecessor, Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, still exists, he said.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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