Civilian Casualties Could End Airstrike Support

Pentagon officials say stopping civilian deaths is their top priority.

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Rising anger over Afghan civilians accidentally killed in U.S. military bombing campaigns has prompted some U.S. officers to issue a stark warning to troops involved in airstrikes: If grave mistakes persist, they could lose armed air support—considered by most soldiers and marines to be an invaluable tool during battle. "Maybe they're just saying that to us as a scare tactic," says one U.S. military officer in Afghanistan. "But they are really serious about cutting these deaths."

Pentagon officials took care to emphasize that latter point this week, particularly on the heels of a report that concluded that U.S. troops failed to follow proper procedures before dropping a 2,000-pound bomb on a building in western Afghanistan last month. Afghan officials claimed some 140 civilians were killed as a result, which would make the incident the deadliest since the 2001 invasion. President Hamid Karzai decried the repeated casualties, adding that the deaths were driving a wedge between America and the Afghan people. He called on U.S. forces to halt airstrikes.

Such a move would be "extreme" and unlikely, say senior Pentagon officials. "We probably would not do that," National Security Adviser James Jones said last month, calling the idea of suspending air support "imprudent," and adding that it would be like fighting "with one hand tied behind our back." It was a step not among the recommendations issued this month by investigators of the May incident. An unclassified version of the report, scheduled to be released last week with the blessing of Pentagon leadership, was delayed after State Department officials expressed concern that the report would inflame tensions in the region. "It's one thing if you do things internal to this building," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell, who played down suggestions that the hold up was the result of State Department concerns. "But often times, when you reach out and include others, it takes longer than you anticipate."

Pentagon officials note both publicly and privately that despite a 40 percent drop in civilian deaths over the past year, according to U.S. commanders, they remain "tremendously concerned" about the deaths of Afghan civilians. Last year, after villagers were killed by U.S. bombs in a widely condemned August incident, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates took the unusual step of drafting a memo that called on U.S. military officials "to acknowledge civilian casualties, express regret, compensate the families—and then investigate," says a senior Pentagon official. Gates "doesn't normally get involved in strategic communication issues," says the official. "But he felt strongly" that the military should be "more forthcoming and forward-leaning." In Brussels last week for a meeting with NATO leaders, Gates called civilian casualties "one of our greatest strategic vulnerabilities."

The deaths, however, have continued, along with calls for answers. "How do you expect the people who keep losing their children to remain friendly?" Karzai asked.

This is a critical question among senior U.S. military officials as well, particularly in the midst of a counterinsurgency war, which emphasizes winning the support of local population. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, noted on Capitol Hill this month that the U.S. military would place a premium on protecting civilians.

Up until now, that goal has been eluding the U.S. military, say officials. Gen. David Petraeus echoed Pentagon concerns in recent conversations with Karzai. He said the U.S. military would "certainly" re-examine its procedures "yet again, in the wake of this latest incident."

Indeed, immediately after the Senate voted to confirm him last week, McChrystal caught a flight to Afghanistan. There, he has been given 60 days to conduct his own study of U.S. military strategy. Figuring out how to protect Afghans from the unintended consequences of war, say U.S. officials, will be one of his chief charges.