Afghan procedure faulted

A newly released report says that the U.S. military in Afghanistan must give higher priority to avoiding civilian casualties when calling for airstrikes, but that the practice of using warplanes to support units engaged in battle should continue.

The U.S. military investigation examined a battle May 4 in western Farah province that resulted in at least two dozen civilian deaths and prompted outrage among Afghans. The report concluded that at least two airstrikes on buildings should not have been ordered.

"We made mistakes that led to civilian deaths," said Air Force Maj. Kristine Beckman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military's Central Command.

Afghan authorities said the attack killed more than 100 civilians. The U.S. investigation estimated that 26 civilians were killed, but played down that disparity in an apparent attempt to minimize friction with the Afghan government.

"We will never be able to determine precisely how many civilian casualties resulted from this operation, but it is inconsistent with the U.S. government's objective of providing security for the Afghan people to conduct operations that result in their death or wounding, if at all avoidable," the report said.

"Civilian casualties can -- and must -- be reduced further," said Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who heads Central Command. He said he had approved the report's recommendations.

The report recommends that the military refine its rules for using airstrikes in situations where civilians could be hurt, and that troops be retrained.

The report is also critical of the military for failing to assess battle damage quickly, and calls for the creation of an investigative team that can respond within two hours of a reported incident.

The new commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has begun pushing the military to react more quickly to reports of fighting and to better communicate what it is trying to do. Beckman said that Navy Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, who has overseen public affairs for Central Command and for commanders in Iraq, had been sent to Afghanistan to overhaul the military's communication efforts.

Although the report does not explicitly criticize the use of a B-1B bomber for close air support, as in the Farah incident, it calls for "a review of the appropriateness" of the aircraft in use in Afghanistan. Petraeus said that the review was underway but that he believed that B-1B bombers should "remain in the mix."

The broad outlines of the report's findings have been known for weeks, but Central Command released an unclassified executive summary Friday.

The report finds that the first round of airstrikes conducted during daylight by Navy F/A-18F fighters complied with military guidance meant to avoid civilian casualties.

But the report is critical of a second round of airstrikes carried out after sunset by a B-1B. The report says the strikes followed the laws of war but did not adhere to the commanders' directives.

According to the report's summary, late in the battle, the B-1B bomber crew observed two groups of Taliban moving rapidly in formation across rough terrain and eventually enter two buildings. The U.S. ground commander ordered that both buildings be bombed.

The report concludes that those two strikes were mistakes because neither the ground force commander nor the aircraft crew could confirm that there were no civilians in the buildings. It says the strikes were legal under international law, because enemy fighters had been identified with multiple forms of intelligence.

"However," the report said, "the inability to discern the presence of civilians and assess the potential collateral damage of those strikes is inconsistent with the U.S. government's objective of providing security and safety for the Afghan people."

The report contains only mild criticism of the personnel involved in what Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said was a long and intense fight.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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