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Red Cross Says Afghan Civilians Killed In Raid


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.



And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

This week strategy meetings over Afghanistan come along with a reminder. Any war plan can run into complications when it's applied on the ground. The presidents of three nations - Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S. - are meeting this week in Washington. In Afghanistan, U.S. forces are investigating a military operation that may have killed dozens of civilians.

MONTAGNE: Local officials and the Red Cross say that civilians were apparently killed when U.S. planes struck Taliban targets. The American commander is looking for information.

General DAVID McKIERNAN (Commanding General, U.S. forces in Afghanistan): We don't have a confirmed number of civilian casualties in, so that's what we've got to come to grips with.

MONTAGNE: That's General David McKiernan. This is the latest in a string of incidents where civilians have been killed by mistake in Afghanistan. NPR's Tom Bowman is covering this story. And Tom, what is known about what happened during that operation in Western Afghanistan?


TOM BOWMAN: Well, Renee, U.S. military officers say Afghan police went into a village after the Taliban beheaded three civilians who were supposedly working with the U.S. and Afghan government forces. Now the police were caught in a firefight with the Taliban and then called for help by the U.S. That's when the U.S. Marines and special operations forces came in. They, too, started taking fire from a number of locations. They called in the airstrikes. And we're told at least one F-18 dropped multiple bombs.

Now, at the same time, a local police official says the Taliban herded some civilians into a house. So that's one possible explanation for what happened here. And now some U.S. military officers are saying the Taliban may have played a larger role here. They may have tossed some grenades at civilians. But again, they're still looking into this and they hope to have more in a next day or two.

MONTAGNE: Given that we keep hearing about incidents like this, have, in fact, civilian casualties increased in Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: Absolutely. The UN reports that the number of civilians killed rose 40 percent over the past year, rising to more than 2,000 civilians killed in 2008 alone. Now, the UN says more than half of those killed were killed by Taliban and other militants, mostly by roadside bombs and suicide attacks. The rest of the civilian deaths were caused in military operations with Afghan, U.S. or allied forces, and most of those incidents where civilians died were caused by airstrikes.

MONTAGNE: Now the U.S. military has said it's made some changes to keep these kinds of incidents from happening. What exactly are they talking about?

BOWMAN: Well, there was an incident last summer in Western Afghanistan as well, not too far from this area, in which anywhere from 30 to as many as 90 civilians died. The U.S. tightened its rules for airstrikes. For example, it said it wanted Afghan forces to lead the way in military operations since they know the terrain and the people better. They also said they wanted multiple sources of information, more eyes on the target, before calling in an airstrike before it's approved.

MONTAGNE: Well, would that mean, though, that the U.S. simply needs to do other things? For instance, could it cut back on the use of airstrikes, given that they're the big cause of civilian deaths?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, General McKiernan was asked about that during a briefing yesterday. And, you know, there are more U.S. troops coming in -21,000 more troops. But he also said that, listen, each mission is different. Sometimes you have to rely on airstrikes because sometimes U.S.-Afghan forces are outnumbered, outgunned by the Taliban, so the military says that sometimes you have to rely on the airstrikes. So, the problem is, in this type of warfare, there's always this tug between protecting civilians and protecting your own troops when they come under heavy fire from the Taliban and other fighters.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tom Bowman is NPR Pentagon correspondent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.