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Gates urges end to Afghan casualties

Civilian deaths 'defeats,' he says

By Anne Gearan
Associated Press / June 13, 2009
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BRUSSELS - The United States and its allies must reduce the number of civilians killed in the hunt for the Taliban in Afghanistan, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday. He called the deaths "one of our greatest strategic vulnerabilities."

"Every civilian casualty, however caused, is a defeat for us and a setback for the Afghan government," Gates told reporters.

Civilian casualties have been a source of tension between the Afghan government and US and NATO troops. President Hamid Karzai has pleaded with US officials to reduce the number of casualties as a result of the fighting.

American officials say that Taliban militants purposely try to cause civilian deaths that can be blamed on US forces in order to turn ordinary Afghans against the international military effort.

Gates said little about the latest high-profile killings, a disputed incident in a western province in which Afghan officials have said that the civilian death toll was 140. US commanders have said they believe no more than 30 civilians were killed, along with 60 to 65 Taliban insurgents.

"We can do better," Gates said.

Gates said preventing civilian deaths is a primary assignment for the American general he picked to turn around the stalemated Afghanistan.

As he headed to his first day on the job in Kabul, General Stanley McChrystal paid a courtesy call yesterday on NATO defense chiefs, a gesture meant to acknowledge the alliance's help even as the United States shoulders an ever-larger share of the fighting.

"I assure you that I take the responsibility very, very seriously," McChrystal told the ministers. He was in Brussels for a few hours for an update on NATO activity in Afghanistan.

The alliance has declared the Afghan war its highest military priority, but the fight against Taliban-led insurgents is unpopular in many European nations, and several alliance countries are reducing or eliminating their forces.

McChrystal will be the overall commander for all forces in Afghanistan, including an American force expected to reach 68,000 by the end of this year, and about 32,000 allied troops.

Gates fired his last commander, and has said the war effort lacked focus and resources. He hand-picked McChrystal and named his own top military aide as the general's deputy in one of the clearest signs yet that the Obama administration is gravely worried about the course of the eight-year war. Gates was in Europe for three days of consultations with NATO allies.

The military has given McChrystal his pick of officers and a free hand to rearrange what many considered an inefficient command structure. The United States is trying to ally NATO concerns about creeping "Americanization" of the war's direction, but will nonetheless install a new hierarchy that more closely resembles the US military machine in Iraq.