Better training urged in Afghan inquiry

Report follows May 4 bombing, civilian deaths

A boy whose house was destroyed by a US airstrike carried what was left of his belongings. Deadly airstrikes have prompted calls for better training to reduce civilian casualties. A boy whose house was destroyed by a US airstrike carried what was left of his belongings. Deadly airstrikes have prompted calls for better training to reduce civilian casualties. (Fraidoon Pooyaa/ Associated Press/ File)
By Pauline Jelinek
Associatd Press / June 18, 2009
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WASHINGTON - A report on deadly air strikes in Afghanistan calls for better training for air and ground forces to reduce civilian casualties that have undermined the counterinsurgency campaign, the Associated Press has learned.

The recommendation on training and a second one urging a review of the use of air support are among a half-dozen recommendations in an unreleased report on a May 4 bombing that killed dozens of Afghan civilians, two Defense Department officials said yesterday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not been made public.

A separate recommendation is to review aircraft used for air support that troops call in to back them up, officials said.

The report recommends that US air and ground forces headed to Afghanistan should receive advance training in the kinds of scenarios they could face, including situations that have resulted in civilian deaths, one official said. The report suggests periodic refresher training throughout troops’ tours of duty in the war zone, meaning that forces would get training early and often to reinforce battlefield tactics.

The Obama administration is sending 21,000 troops to Afghanistan to bolster the nearly eight-year-old campaign against the Taliban.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top military officials have said that reducing civilian deaths is crucial to winning Afghan support for American and coalition operations against the insurgents and boosting the population’s support for the central government.

Afghan officials have said that 140 civilians were killed during the air strikes in Farah Province. The report being prepared for release holds to earlier US estimates of a lower death toll of about 30 civilians and 60 to 65 Taliban fighters. Officials acknowledged that a precise number may never be known because many victims were buried before the investigation started.

Defense officials have struggled for days to produce an unclassified summary that can be released publicly and would explain the findings of the investigation. They have also worked to pare down hours of video that shows what happened.

But defense officials have acknowledged mistakes in the air strikes, saying some tactics and procedures were not followed strictly. The review found that the early May air strikes were carried out against legitimate Taliban targets but that, at least in one case, it was unclear whether civilians were in the vicinity.

In one air strike, an Air Force B-1 dropped a 2,000-pound bomb on a building that Taliban members had been seen entering, officials have said. Some military officials have questioned whether that bomb was larger and more destructive than warranted.

The air crew received permission to strike but circled around and dropped the bomb without reconfirming. That lag time, officials said, may have allowed the insurgents to leave the targeted building and civilians to enter in the interim before the blast.

It is not known whether that air strike added to the civilian toll, officials have said.

Officials said the report does not recommend changes in tactics and procedures used in Afghanistan, though the new commander there, Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, has said he will review them as well as all existing rules of engagement.

Military commanders have reviewed and rewritten such guidelines - including those on bombing missions and on how special forces operate - in an effort to avoid Afghan casualties. Rules that were tightened in a review late last year may not have been followed by troops on May 4, officials have said.

The toll of dead civilians from US air strikes feeds Afghan resentment toward the military mission and has become a major irritant in US dealings with Afghanistan’s fragile civilian government. Protecting the population is key to the counterinsurgency campaign.

The United Nations has said 2,118 civilians died in the Afghan war last year, 40 percent more than in 2007. The UN said US, NATO, and Afghan forces killed 829 civilians, or 39 percent of the total. Of those, 552 deaths were blamed on air strikes.

The Pentagon says that in the first five months of this year, civilian casualties have dropped 27 percent from the same period in 2008, and that kidnappings and assassinations decreased 19 percent. At the same time casualties among US and NATO forces have risen 62 percent, the Defense Department says.

According to the US military, the battle in Farah Province began a day after Taliban fighters entered two villages, demanded money from civilians, and killed three former government employees. An Afghan force rushed in, only to be ambushed by as many as 300 insurgents.

The provincial governor asked for US help, and American ground troops joined the battle, the US officials said. Before the battle was over, troops called in F-18 fighter jet air strikes as well as help from the B-1 bomber, coordinating with the ground commander to strike a half-dozen targets, the US officials have said.