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Gates apologizes for Afghan deaths

Times Staff Writer

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates expressed “personal regrets” Wednesday for the deaths of Afghan civilians in airstrikes and ordered U.S. forces from now on to immediately pay families of people mistakenly killed in any attack.

In a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, the capital, Gates vowed that the U.S. would take steps to avoid such mistakes.

“While no military has ever done more to prevent civilian casualties, it is clear we have to work even harder,” Gates said at a news conference after the meeting. “You have my word that we will do everything in our power to find new ways and better ways of targeting our common enemies while protecting the good people of Afghanistan.”

Pentagon officials said delays in apologizing for errant bombings and providing compensation were hurting the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan. The Taliban and other militants have tapped anger over civilian deaths and sought to portray the U.S. military as cavalier and careless.

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“Too often in our pursuit of the truth, we lose valuable time and end up on the losing end of our battle with insurgents for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people,” Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said.

Gates accepted a proposal by Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak to create a permanent Afghan-American investigation board that would look into serious allegations of errant attacks.

The U.S. has paid compensation to families of people mistakenly killed in attacks before. But Gates ordered Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, to make sure those payments are made far more quickly. Speaking at Bagram air base outside Kabul, Gates said the U.S. would pay compensation and make amends for errant strikes before a full investigation.

It remained unclear how generous the United States would be in practice. In the most controversial recent airstrike, in the village of Azizabad, U.S. officials initially said about seven civilians were killed; Afghan and United Nations investigators maintain that about 90 civilians died.

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Had the new policy been in effect when that airstrike occurred, U.S. officials suggested, they would have initially provided compensation only for the families of the seven they believed were mistakenly killed. If the Pentagon sticks to that more conservative approach, the move to speed compensation payments may do little to offset public anger.

A more liberal policy, however, could result in families of militants receiving compensation, and that money could inadvertently end up in the hands of insurgents.

As part of his efforts to assure Afghan leaders, Gates met with Air Force Brig. Gen. Mike Holmes, commander of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing at Bagram. Holmes told the Defense secretary that his pilots were being vigilant when they dropped bombs.

When Gates was asked about U.S. incursions in neighboring Pakistan to combat insurgents who shelter there and attack Western forces in Afghanistan, he avoided commenting on the raids and instead said he was pleased with recent efforts by Pakistan to increase operations in those tribal areas.

“It is my hope,” Gates said, “that we can work closely with the Pakistanis to prevent this from being a safe haven that threatens both Afghanistan and a democratic Pakistan.”

Another suspected U.S. missile strike took place Wednesday, just hours after Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assured Pakistani officials that their nation’s sovereignty would be respected.

The strike, on a compound in the South Waziristan tribal region, killed at least six people, local officials said. Security sources described the target as linked to Hezb-i-Islami, one of the militant groups believed to have sent fighters into Afghanistan.

Mullen met with Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani and army chief of staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, and “reiterated the U.S. commitment to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

Special correspondent Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

In the first eight months of this year, 1,445 civilians were killed in fighting in Afghanistan, the majority by insurgents.

800

Killed by insurgents

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577

Killed by U.S.-led and government forces

Undetermined: 68

Source: United Nations


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