Gates' unusual apology is evidence of what a major point of contention civilian casualties have become with the Afghan government, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin. And the civilian casualties point to a fundamental problem facing the U.S. in Afghanistan - not enough troops. The shortage of troops forces commanders to rely on air strikes in going after the Taliban and al Qaeda, and air strikes invariably produce civilian casualties.
After meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other senior government officials, Gates said at a news conference, "As I told them, I offer all Afghans my sincere condolences and personal regret for the recent loss of innocent life as a result of coalition airstrikes."
Meanwhile, the commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, says he now needs a total of four more combat brigades - roughly 15,000 troops - in order to cover the terrain. One of those brigades is due to arrive in January, a second could get there in May, but it will depend on further withdrawals from Iraq, Martin reports. It could be 2010 before the fourth brigade gets there, so the problem of not enough troops is not going to be solved any time soon.
Gates said the U.S. military takes extraordinary precautions to avoid civilian casualties, but added, "It is clear that we have to work even harder." He told Afghan officials that he would discuss the issue with American commanders and pilots on Wednesday.
Later, Gates flew to Bagram, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, and received a briefing on procedures for using air power. "As I told President Karzai this morning, we are very concerned about this," Gates told reporters after the briefing. "It's a very high priority for us."
He agreed to an Afghan government proposal to create a permanent joint investigative group to probe any incident involving civilian casualties, rather than assigning investigators to individual cases as they arrive, according to Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.
"The danger is that we'll be here longer and we'll expend more resources and experience more human suffering than if we had more resources placed against this campaign sooner," McKiernan told reporters traveling with Gates.
He also said he knows he can only get more combat forces if troops are diverted from Iraq. The Army brigade arriving in Afghanistan in January was initially scheduled to go to Iraq, and it includes about 3,700 soldiers.
McKiernan said his Washington bosses had "validated" his request for the three additional brigades - or at least 10,000 more troops - and said he believes it is a question of when, not if, he will get those reinforcements. There currently are about 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are headed in opposite directions: Violence is down substantially in Iraq and U.S. troop levels are declining, while the fighting is heating up in Afghanistan and more U.S. troops are needed.
McKiernan said that while he does not believe the U.S. is losing the war there, "we are winning slower in some places than others."
There have been a series of attacks in Afghanistan that resulted in civilian deaths - most notably the highly publicized allegations that a U.S. attack on an Afghan village compound on Aug. 22 killed as many as 90 Afghan civilians, including women and children. The U.S. military has disputed the allegation but also has opened a new investigation considering emerging evidence.
Another fundamental problem that is not going to be solved any time soon is the safe havens in Pakistan. The U.S. has stepped up its cross border strikes, mainly using unmanned drones, and that has provoked howls of protest from Pakistan and even threats to open fire on any American troops who cross the border.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, paid a hasty visit to Pakistan on Tuesday in an effort to repair the damage. Afterwards, the American embassy in Islamabad put out a statement promising that the U.S. would respect Pakistani sovereignty. What it didn't say - but which is also true - is the U.S. will continue to protect its troops in Afghanistan and that means going after the sanctuaries in Pakistan, Martin reports. In other words, the U.S. respects Pakistani sovereignty but will continue to violate it. Just as the U.S. regrets civilian casualties but cannot - no matter how hard it tries - avoid them.