WASHINGTON — An internal military investigation into an U.S. airstrike in western Afghanistan acknowledged that U.S. forces may have killed as many as 86 civilians and said the military needs to re-examine its rules to reduce future civilian casualties.
The report, which suggests that troops need a refresher on how to best use airpower, how to avoid civilian casualties and how to communicate with the Afghan civilians they're being sent to protect, will probably do little to endear the coalition with the Afghans, a cornerstone of the U.S. counterinsurgency plan.
And its issuance raises questions about whether the U.S. should use a B-1B bomber — an expensive Cold War-era supersonic bomber originally designed to penetrate the former Soviet Union's airspace and drop nuclear weapons — to rout out Taliban hiding among Afghan civilians.
The airstrike, in the western Farah province, has drawn the ire of local and national leaders, strained relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan and become an issue in August elections there. Afghan investigations have placed the civilian death toll as high as 140.
The report found 26 confirmed civilian casualties but concedes that it is impossible to determine a final number because some were buried before investigators arrived. However, it also cites an investigation by the Afghan Human Rights Commission shortly after the May 4 incident, which found 86 casualties. The report doesn't say how many suspected Taliban fighters were killed in the offensive.
The eight-hour battle began when Afghan security forces discovered that as many as 300 Taliban were amassing nearby and threatening residents. A nearby U.S. Marine Special Operations team told the Afghan forces they should take a few days and plan an attack, but the Afghans decided to go after the Taliban, the report said, and U.S. forces agreed to be on call in case they needed additional help.
When the Afghans came under attack, the Marines deployed ground troops and eventually four F-18s. Despite that, the report said, "enemy direct fire subsided for a brief period, but never completely." Those attacks didn't lead to civilian casualties, it said.
When the fighting didn't subside, the military decided to deploy B-1B bombers that launched three strikes. The report suggests that the criteria for launching attacks were vague.
The first attack occurred when the bomber "spotted a group of similarly-sized adults moving in a tactical manner — definitively and rapidly in evenly spaced intervals across difficult terrain in the dark — behind the enemy's front lines. The ground force didn't receive direct fire from this group at any time while the B-1B crew tracked and targeted them," the report said.
The second strike took place near Afghan forces and targeted a building where suspected fighters had taken cover. However, no one confirmed whether civilian were inside the structure before the attack was launched, the report said. The third strike occurred inside a village, and again U.S. forces saw fighters run into a structure, but didn't check if civilians were inside before striking it.
In some instances, forces didn't follow guidance, and that "resulted in civilian casualties." The report, however, didn't recommend curtailing the use of the airstrikes.
The seven recommendations included improving coordination with non-governmental organizations, improving investigative skills, a review of U.S. rules governing airstrikes and better strategic communications.
"There are additional changes that I think that we're going to clearly have to make to ensure that we do absolutely everything to make sure civilian casualties are eliminated, if possible, or certainly minimized in every situation," said Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Thursday.
Pentagon leaders had wavered about whether to release the report's findings.
Although the report has been complete and approved since June 8, U.S. military officials decided to not release it until late Friday. The military didn't release a video of part of the incident, despite a promise from Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command, shortly after the incident.
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