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U.S. must work to limit civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Mullen says

As details about the May 4 airstrikes on village surface, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says the U.S. cannot succeed in Afghanistan if such accidental strikes on civilians keep occurring.

May 19, 2009|Julian E. Barnes and Laura King

WASHINGTON AND KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — The U.S. is jeopardizing its chances of success in Afghanistan by mistakenly inflicting casualties on civilians in airstrikes that undermine support for the war among the general population, the top U.S. military officer said Monday.

Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cited the aerial bombing this month of a village in western Afghanistan that killed an undetermined number of civilians as one that has occurred despite changes in procedures aimed at reducing such deaths.

"We cannot succeed in Afghanistan, or anywhere else -- but let's talk specifically about Afghanistan -- by killing Afghan civilians," Mullen told experts and scholars at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "We can't keep going through incidents like this and expect the strategy to work."

Military officials are investigating the May 4 airstrike in Afghanistan's Farah province, which Afghan officials said killed 140 civilians, a figure disputed by the Pentagon.

As Mullen spoke, new details emerged in Kabul about the strike, which has prompted widespread criticism in Afghanistan.

U.S. warplanes carried out a wave of attacks in support of Afghan and American ground forces in and around the village of Garani over a six-hour period in the late afternoon and evening, said Army Col. Gregory Julian, chief spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The firepower included two 2,000-pound bombs dropped by a B-1 bomber.

Other bombs dropped in eight runs between 3 and 9 p.m. included 500-pound GBU-12s and GBU-38s.

The description represented the most detailed U.S. military account to date of fighting in and near the village.

The bombardment came on a day of heavy fighting between Taliban insurgents and Afghan troops backed by U.S. Marines.

Military officials have acknowledged that some civilians died, but say they believe the toll is much lower than 140 and that some of the villagers were killed by grenades thrown by Taliban fighters.

All of the U.S. bombs identified by Julian are routinely used in Afghanistan. The 500-pound GBU-12 is a laser-guided bomb, while the 2,000-pound GBU-31 and the 500-pound GBU-38 are primarily guided by global positioning satellites.

The first of the U.S. strikes were carried out in sequence by three F-18s, Julian said. Before that, one of the fighter jets did a "low, fast flyover" in an attempt to dissuade the insurgents from firing on American and Afghan troops, according to an American official.

"It did not have the intended effect," he said.

The deadliest strike occurred about 8 p.m., when villagers said two large mud-brick compounds were struck after more than 160 civilians, mainly women and children, had taken shelter in them. The U.S. military has not identified the final targets except to describe them as two buildings.

In recent years, Air Force bombs have become more precise. In addition to the guidance systems, pilots can adjust the fuse on many bombs or change the bomb's angle of attack, which helps control the size of the explosion and the area of damage.

According to Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch, civilian causalities usually occur when the military is responding to troops who have unexpectedly become embroiled in a firefight, as occurred in Garani.

"Oftentimes, the Air Force has to make do with whatever is on the rails of whatever aircraft is overhead," Garlasco said. "So while you may not want to drop a 2,000-pound bomb, that may be what is available."

Mullen said any new policy on the use of force must not tie the hands of troops. "We've got to be very, very focused on making sure that we proceed deliberately, that we know who the enemy is," he said.

Scott Silliman, a former Air Force lawyer and a professor at Duke University, said if troops are in danger and the pilot takes steps to minimize collateral damage, they can use the weapons they have on hand, even if a smaller weapon might be more ideal. "As long as that pilot does everything he can feasibly to minimize collateral damage, then in my view he has done the right thing," he said.

Garlasco said that until more information is available, it is impossible to know whether the bombs were too large for the scale of fighting.

"Is it an appropriate use of force? Perhaps. Does it raise concerns? Sure," he said.

--

julian.barnes@latimes.com

laura.king@latimes.com

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