Military: US Airstrikes Likely Killed 26 Civilians

WASHINGTON (AP) - A U.S. warplane failed to follow all
operational rules in a complex battle in Afghanistan last month
that killed an estimated 26 civilians and 78 Taliban fighters, the
U.S. military concluded in a report released Friday.

The deaths last month raised the stakes in a growing battle for
the good will of Afghan civilians, whose allegiance Defense
Secretary Robert Gates has said is crucial if the United States is
going to win the faltering war in Afghanistan.

"The inability to discern the presence of civilians and assess
the potential collateral damage of those strikes is inconsistent
with the U.S. government's objective of providing security and
safety for the Afghan people," the report prepared by U.S. Central
Command said.

Three U.S. airstrikes conducted after dark near the close of the
chaotic fight in the western Farah Province probably accounted for
the civilian deaths, the report said. It contained only mild
criticism of the B-1 bomber crew involved, however, and the
nation's top military official has already said there is no reason
to punish any U.S. personnel.

The report contains no surprises - U.S. officials had already
given rough estimates of the number of deaths - but provides a
vivid narrative of a firefight that also killed five Afghan
national police officers. Two U.S. personnel and seven Afghan
security officers were wounded.

Local Afghan officials have said as many as 140 people were

The report recommends refining the current rules for operations
with the potential to kill civilians and ensuring that training
matches the rules.

Other recommendations include improving the military's ability
to get its side of the story in front of Afghans faster, something
commanders say is frustratingly difficult. The U.S. should be
"first with the truth," the report said.

The report promised a follow-up in four months on how well new
tactical rules are working.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen,
told a Pentagon news conference Thursday that he has seen nothing
in the investigation that would call for disciplinary action
against the U.S. forces involved.

Mullen added that the complex, seven- to eight-hour fight, which
stretched from daylight to dark, revealed gaps in the chain of
command and some training shortcomings that military leaders plan
to address.

Mullen said he is satisfied that U.S. forces involved in the
battle were sufficiently sure of their targets and believed that
civilians would not be injured when they fired.

Gates has said the accidental killing of civilians in
Afghanistan has become one of the military's greatest strategic
problems in a war his commanders have called a stalemate at best.

Gates has also said the thousands of new U.S. troops deploying
in Afghanistan can lessen the reliance on airstrikes, which are
responsible for most of the civilian deaths at U.S. hands.

He has directed his new general running the war in Afghanistan
to find new ways to reduce the number of deaths.

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