The U.S. military said Wednesday that U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan on Aug. 22 killed 33 civilians, far more than previously acknowledged. It expressed regret but blamed Taliban guerrillas who were targeted in the attack for having chosen to take up fighting positions near civilians.
A civilian toll of 33 compares with an original U.S. estimate of five to seven. The Afghan government and U.N. investigators contended 90 civilians died. In a summary of its findings from a detailed investigation, Central Command said 22 militants were killed in an assault that was launched on a village compound with the intent of killing or capturing an unnamed "high value individual."
Working with the crew of an AC-130H gunship, the on-scene U.S. commander established positive identification of legitimate targets before ordering attacks with small arms and air power, according to the summary signed by the chief investigating officer, Brig. Gen. Michael Callan.
"Unfortunately and unknown to the U.S. and Afghan forces, the (militants) chose fighting positions in close proximity to civilians," the report said.
Of the 33 dead civilians, the U.S. investigators counted eight men, three women and 12 children. The 10 others were undetermined.
The acting commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, asserted that despite the civilian deaths, U.S. forces involved in the attack in western Herat province acted on the basis of credible intelligence, in self-defense and in line with their rules of engagement.
"We are deeply saddened at the loss of innocent life in Azizabad," Dempsey said. He blamed the Taliban.
"We go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties in Afghanistan in all our operations, but as we have seen all too often, this ruthless enemy routinely surround themselves with innocents," he said.
Central Command rejected the claims of the Afghan government and U.N. officials that 90 civilians were killed. It said they relied primarily on villager statements, limited forensics and no access to U.S. intelligence.
"Their reports lack independent evidence to support the allegations of higher numbers of civilian casualties," the U.S. report said.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was in Afghanistan last month to get briefed on U.S. military procedures for avoiding civilian casualties in airstrikes, is determined to make sure that U.S. forces operate "with more care."
At the same time, Morrell repeated in an e-mailed statement while traveling Wednesday with Gates in Europe, the Central Command's contention that the Taliban deliberately put "innocent bystanders in harm's way."
The issue of civilian deaths has outraged Afghans and strained relations with foreign forces in Afghanistan to help fight the insurgency. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has warned U.S. and NATO for years that they must stop killing civilians on bombing runs against militants, saying the deaths undermine his government and the international mission.
Rear Adm. Greg Smith, director of communication at Central Command, said the matter is considered closed and no disciplinary action is contemplated against anyone involved, in light of the investigation's conclusion that due diligence was exercised and the laws of war were not violated.
The investigation was based on 28 interviews resulting in more than 20 hours of recorded testimony from Afghan government officials, Afghan village elders, officials from nongovernmental organizations, U.S. and Afghan service members, 236 documents and 11 videos, according to Central Command.
On Sept. 2, less than two weeks after the raid in the village of Azizabad, NATO's commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, issued a revised order meant to govern the tactics and procedures followed by U.S. forces when engaging in air and ground fights against insurgents.
Several days after that, McKiernan ordered a second U.S. investigation into the deaths because pictures and video images surfaced that appeared to show 30 to 40 victims, including at least 10 dead children, laid out in a village mosque.
Zemeri Bashary, Afghanistan's Interior Ministry spokesman, said Wednesday that he had not yet seen the new U.S. report, but the Afghan government stood by its original findings.
A joint delegation of Afghan lawmakers and local officials investigated within days of the strike and concluded that around 90 Afghan civilians, including 60 children, were killed. That finding was backed by a preliminary U.N. report.
McKiernan has said there are too few U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan, so the military is relying more heavily on air power, a greater risk in a conflict where insurgents do not wear uniforms and intentionally mix with the general population for protection.
In a trip to Afghanistan in mid-September, Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered the people of Afghanistan his "personal regrets" over the civilian deaths and said he would try to improve the accuracy of air operations.