Gen.: Taliban Hit Civilians, Blamed U.S.

The United States Wednesday responded to criticism that it was responsible for dozens of civilian casualties during air strikes in Afghanistan on Monday.

Those civilian casualties could not have come at a worse time as the Obama administration tries to build support for its new strategy, reports CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric, traveling with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The estimate of civilian casualties varies between 30 and more than 100. At dispute now is who's responsible. It will certainly be a topic of discussion as Secretary Gates meets with U.S. military commanders.

But General David McKiernan, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, raised some doubts Wednesday about whether it was an American air strike that caused the deaths when he sat down with Couric earlier in the day.

Couric: The Red Cross says that women and children are among the dozens killed in this air strike. How did this happen?

McKiernan: We have some information that leads us to believe that Taliban purposely caused civilian casualties, and then alleged that this is a result of U.S. air support.

Fighting the increasingly brazen Taliban insurgency are 41,000 U.S. troops and 24,000 from other nations. The number of U.S. troops will swell to 65,000 by the end of the summer, Couric reports.

But U.S. military leaders concede more troops alone won't turn the tide. They believe providing education, employment and improved infrastructure is the key to winning popular support for their efforts.

And incidents like the one in western Afghanistan earlier this week do not help win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, which is critical to defeating the Taliban.

Couric: Whatever the outcome, rumors alone that many civilians were killed by U.S. air strikes - that is very problematic, particularly at this moment in time, isn't it?

McKiernan: Well it's always problematic in a counterinsurgency campaign if there are allegations that we've caused civilian casualties, that certainly doesn't help the situation at all.

Couric: It doesn't win over the local population.

McKiernan: It doesn't; it doesn't win support.

Couric: It engenders more mistrust.

McKiernan: It does.

But, the general added, because it sometimes takes time to uncover the truth, the U.S. is at a distinct disadvantage in the propaganda war with the Taliban, who are quick to blame the United States for any civilian deaths.
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