A long-awaited Pentagon report on a deadly air strike in Afghanistan acknowledges some American culpability in civilian deaths and reveals new details from a U.S. investigation into the incident.
The Pentagon said U.S. forces involved in air strikes that killed dozens of civilians in Afghanistan last month had failed to follow guidelines for preventing civilian casualties.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the military’s internal investigation into the American assault on the village of Granai identified several problems, most notably that a B-1 bomber lost sight of one of its targets on the ground before dropping its bombs.
He said it wasn’t clear whether the B-1 crew’s loss of positive identification of its target resulted in civilian deaths, but that military investigators “did note that as one of the problems associated with how this all took place.”
Washington and Kabul have feuded publicly for weeks over the airstrikes, with Afghan officials alleging that U.S. forces killed 140 civilians. U.S. military officials have consistently put the number of civilian casualties at around 30, with at least 60 Taliban militants killed. The report estimated that at least 26 civilians and 78 militants were killed in the May 4 incident when U.S. F-18 fighters and B-1 bombers bombed the village of Granai, in Farah province. The death toll estimate means the Pentagon is officially rejecting Kabul’s claim that more than 140 civilians were killed that day.
“There were some problems with some tactics, techniques and procedures, the way in which close air support was supposed to have been executed in this case,” Mr. Morrell told reporters on Monday.
The 13-page document is the unclassified version of a report that was presented to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other senior officials in recent days. The classified version included aerial video footage showing much of the hours long battle.
Most of the report’s central findings had already leaked out, including its recommendation that U.S. commanders “refine” their guidelines governing the use of airstrikes in civilian areas.
Mr. Morrell said it was possible U.S. forces could be disciplined for their roles in the strikes, but that he didn’t have any sense “that charges are imminent or warranted in this case.”
He declined to disclose the report’s final estimate of how many civilians died, but said “they were greatly outnumbered by the Taliban killed in this incident.”
Air strikes have triggered strong anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan, after hundreds of civilians were killed in U.S. raids in recent months.
The Obama administration’s nominee to run the war, Lt. Gen. Stanley Mc Chrystal, told a Senate panel earlier this month that he would review U.S. operating procedures to look for new ways to minimize civilian casualties.
“I believe the perception caused by civilian casualties is one of the most dangerous things we face in Afghanistan,” he said.
The American assault on the village of Granai began when Taliban militants beheaded three Afghan officials and then ambushed the Afghan and U.S. forces that responded to the killings. Marine units on the ground radioed for help, and American F-18 fighters, and at least one B-1 bomber, struck targets in the village.
By Yochi J. Dreazen at email@example.com