Air Strikes and Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday reiterated his stance that the US must do a better job in preventing civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Despite US efforts, another case has surfaced in which scores of Afghan civilians were reportedly killed in a US air strike, leading Afghan President Hamid Karzai last week to call on the US to end all air attacks. But there are diverging reports on whether the US was in error or Taliban insurgents used the civilians as human shields and perhaps even killed them themselves, and then blamed the US. Gates called for a better US strategic communications cycle to counter the Taliban’s efforts either at provoking or exploiting civilian casualties. “That has been a disadvantage for us on an ongoing basis,” he said during a May 11 Pentagon press briefing. But Gates also agreed with National Security Adviser James Jones that the US cannot operate with one hand tied behind its back by halting air strikes. Appearing on ABC’s “This Week” on May 10, Jones said: “To tie the hands of our commanders and say we’re not going to conduct air strikes—it would be imprudent. … But we are going to take very seriously and redouble our efforts to make sure that innocent civilians are not killed.” (Full transcript) Although some have speculated that Gates’ removal of Army Gen. David McKiernan as the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan was related to the issue of air strikes, Gates told reporters his decision was driven by the desire for a fresh set of leadership eyes as the US embarks on a new strategy against a resilient and resurgent Taliban. He said, when asked, “nothing went wrong,” with McKiernan. In fact, he said that civilian casualties are down compared to a year ago. (Gates transcript)