Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, standing beside Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said Tuesday that the buildup of troops ordered by President Obama will not change U.S. policy that stresses the avoidance of civilian casualties during clashes with the Taliban.
Even as it gets increasingly aggressive against the Taliban, the U.S. will continue to put a priority on safeguarding civilians, Gates said at a joint news conference, "unlike the enemies of Afghanistan who target innocent Afghans and lie about it."
The issue of civilian casualties, particularly those caused by aerial bombardment, has occasionally strained the relationship between Karzai and the U.S. The top U.S. military officer in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has made avoiding civilian deaths a major part of his strategy to win the support of the Afghan population.
Gates, on a surprise visit to Afghanistan, also said any reduction in troops will be "based on conditions on the ground," even though Obama has mentioned July 2011 as a possible starting point for withdrawal.
"Our government will not again turn our back on this country," Gates said.
Gates' comments came as the U.S. was denying claims that civilians were killed during a U.S.-Afghan assault on a suspected roadside-bomb factory in Laghman province. Seven insurgents were reported killed, several arrested.
One test of the U.S. policy of confronting the Taliban while avoiding civilian deaths may come in a planned assault in Marja in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.
U.S. Marine brass have said the assault against the Taliban stronghold may resemble the fierce fighting in the Iraqi city of Fallouja in late 2004. Taliban are thought to be barricaded in homes nestled in residential neighborhoods, raising the possibility of noncombatants being caught in the crossfire.
Gates was not alone in stressing that the surge will not change U.S. policy about civilians.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the same point in comments this week to Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C. A Marine battalion there is set to deploy to Helmand province later this month, the first of the 30,000 additional troops ordered by Obama.
The Marja assault is expected to include Marines and Afghan forces. Part of Obama's recent update of his administration's strategy for Afghanistan is a greater effort by the U.S. to increase the number of Afghan police and soldiers, particularly those capable of taking a front-line role against the Taliban.
An assault that began last week against insurgents in the deserted Now Zad valley involved 900 Marines but only 150 Afghan security personnel.
"When Afghan police and Afghan soldiers are in a fight, they have shown great courage," Gates said. "We'd rather have Afghan security forces in the front. The sooner that happens, the better for all of us."
On a political note, Karzai said he expects to announce his cabinet selections next week. He has been under pressure from the U.S. and political opponents in Afghanistan to purge anyone with suspected ties to rampant corruption here.
Karzai promised to "present a cabinet to the Afghan people that can support and can also be supported by the international community."
Karzai said that it would probably be 15 to 20 years before Afghanistan can sustain its security forces without financial and technical support from the U.S.