CRAWFORD, Texas (Reuters) - President George W. Bush and
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on Monday pledged to try to reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan but blamed the Taliban for using human shields.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has protested the rising civilian death toll from U.S. and NATO operations trying to defeat a spring offensive by the Taliban.
Afghan officials say dozens of civilians have been killed in recent weeks. The growing death toll has triggered protests by Afghans demanding Karzai's resignation and the expulsion of American troops from Afghanistan.
"The Taliban likes to surround themselves with innocent civilians," Bush said. "They don't mind using human shields because they devalue human life."
Karzai has said Afghanistan could no longer accept civilian casualties, and a U.S. military commander apologized for the killing of 19 civilians by U.S. soldiers during an attack in March.
But, the US military has a history of justifying civilian casualties and then thinking that a weak apology and a few bucks handed out to survivors' relatives makes up for their incompetence.
Over the past month, Afghan officials reported 50 civilians killed in US air strikes in fighting in the western province in Herat, and another 21 in south central Helmand province. They followed a string of similar incidents last year as fighting intensified between NATO and Taliban forces, many of them involving air strikes called in by troops in the heat of battle. “Every time that happens someone walks away .. with a bad feeling either to NATO or the United States or its coalition members. That’s what we don’t want to happen,” General Bantz Craddock, NATO’s supreme allied commander, told reporters Friday.
The deaths have sparked public outrage at a time when NATO is facing a major challenge from the Taliban, creating a dilemma for commanders over whether the gains offered by air strikes are worth the loss in public support. Some analysts say too few troops on the ground, coupled with allied sensitivities about using ground forces and taking casualties, have made air power an irresistible option. “The problem is when you don’t have enough forces on the ground, and when those forces - especially with the variety of NATO countries - are restricted and there are deep concerns about casualties, air power is all you have left,” said Seth Jones, an analyst at the Rand Corporation, a think tank with ties to the US Air Force.
This is what happens when you fight a war on the cheap after you've decided that Iraq is where you're really supposed to be:
US special forces called in unusually heavy aerial support in fighting April 27 through April 30 in the remote Zerkoh Valley of Afghanistan’s western Herat province.
Air force B-1B bombers and F-15E fighters dropped 2,000 pound and 500 pound satellite-guided bombs on Taliban positions and on at least one compound that had been used as a firing position, according to air force summaries. A US military press release said an AC-130 gunship also was used to kill a large number of fighters. It put the total Taliban dead in two days of fighting at 136. Later, though, Afghan and UN officials said the bodies of 50 civilians were recovered, and differing accounts have emerged over whether US forces engaged Taliban fighters or armed villagers fighting off foreign intruders.
The US military has provided no explanation of what happened, or acknowledged any civilians were killed in the fighting. Officials said the commander on the scene used “appropriate level of force” to protect his unit. The rules under which a commander is required to operate are classified, so it is not known what restrictions are placed on them. Military officials say they go to great lengths, using surveillance aircraft and “eyes on the ground” to positively identify their targets, and hold back if they cannot.
Obviously, that's not working.