After reviewing a disputed airstrike on a village in Afghanistan, US officials have concluded that the civilian death toll was far lower than claimed by the Afghan government and the UN, two US defense officials said on Thursday.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because results of the review have not been announced publicly, said Afghan officials have been presented the findings, which say 25 militants were killed, plus five civilians. Afghan officials have said that between 76 and 90 civilians were killed.
Also, the US government is pressing for a joint US-Afghan investigation in hopes of reaching a common conclusion about an incident that stirred outrage in Afghanistan and frustration among US officials.
It was not clear on Thursday either whether the Afghan government accepted the findings of the US review or whether a joint probe would go forward. Details of how the US review was conducted were not immediately available.
In the days after the attack in western Afghanistan, the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai sharply rebuked the US, saying the incident showed the need for tighter regulation of US military operations.
Afghanistan’s Council of Ministers ordered the ministries of defense and foreign affairs to open negotiations with the US and NATO over the use of airstrikes, house searches and the detentions of Afghan civilians. It also urged a “status of forces” agreement to regulate the troops’ presence.
Early this week a UN human rights team said it had found “convincing evidence” to support claims that about 90 civilians were killed, including 60 children.
The US military in Afghanistan said the operation was led by Afghan National Army commandos, with support from US Special Operations forces. It said that along with the fatalities, five militants were detained. Troops also seized ammunition, grenades, rifles and bomb-making materials.
At the Pentagon on Thursday, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was not aware of the result of the US review of the disputed airstrike.
“We work exceptionally hard to minimize any collateral damage,” Mullen said, referring to unintended casualties. “Zero collateral damage is the goal. We know that when collateral damage occurs, that it really does set us back, so we worked exceptionally hard to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
The US military makes frequent use of air power in both Iraq and Afghanistan but has drawn more highly publicized accusations of civilian deaths in Afghanistan. Asked about this, Mullen said he has made clear to commanders the importance of avoiding civilian casualties.
“I’ve got great commanders out there, and it’s their — they make these decisions, and I am hard-pressed to second-guess what they’re doing with respect to that,” Mullen told a news conference.
The Joint Chiefs chairman announced that he met in secret on Tuesday with his Pakistani counterpart, General Ashfaq Kayani, to discuss efforts to slow the infiltration of militants from Pakistan into Afghanistan.
The meeting aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, a US Navy aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, was also attended by General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, who will soon leave to become the senior commander in the Middle East. Also there were Admiral Eric Olson, head of the Special Operations Command, and Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey, acting commander of US forces in the Middle East.