After Afghan Probe, Military Vows Changes
After acknowledging that an August airstrike by U.S. forces killed 33 Afghan civilians, instead of the five originally reported by the military, U.S. Central Command officials say they will try to better document casualties, communicate more with humanitarian organizations and make "condolence payments" to victim's families when appropriate.
But the new report on the incident also found that "the use of force was in self-defense, necessary and proportional based on the information the On-Scene-Commander had at the time."
The dispute over the number of civilian casualties in the attack has become an international issue, with Afghan leaders angrily questioning the way U.S. forces pick their targets. The Afghan government, U.S. military, Western journalists, human-rights organizations and the United Nations have all weighed in with estimates of the toll.
Last month, during a visit to Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates acknowledged the human and public relations damage caused by such incidents. He promised additional measures to minimize them and to conduct more transparent investigations. He also said that in the future, the United States will compensate the families of alleged victims even before completing its investigations.
The initial U.S. military review of the Aug. 21 airstrike in western Afghanistan maintained that only five civilians were killed.
After hearing reports of more casualties, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan conducted its own investigation into the killings and found that tribal leaders and local residents were able to confirm some 90 casualties, including names and ages of the victims.
A copy U.S. Central Command's summary of its report on the Aug. 21 airstrike in western Afghanistan that killed 33 civilians and at least 22 militants
Then two videos apparently recorded with a cell phone and obtained by several news agencies (raw video) surfaced, showing dozens of bodies of women and children laid out in a village mosque.
Afghan officials later said that at least 70 people, including women and children, were killed in the attack, according to a statement prepared by the office of Afghanistan President Hamed Karzai.
In it, military officials say they found evidence of 55 deaths during the airstrike, including 33 civilians. Investigators said they conducted more than two dozen interviews with Afghan tribal leaders and officials and reviewed 11 videos in connection with the attack.
The validity of the other probes by the UN and human rights organizations "are in question," the summary says, because they lack recent census records, birth or death certificates and rely on inconsistent burial evidence. Furthermore, inconsistent statements by villagers and an unreliable "blood-soaked rug" did not persuade U.S. investigators that there were more civilian deaths.
Casualty lists were also provided by "mainly one source" and the source was potentially "tainted" because of political, financial and "survival" agendas, the report said.
"We are deeply saddened at the loss of innocent life in Azizabad," Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the acting head of Central Command, said yesterday in a statement. "We go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties in Afghanistan in all our operations, but as we have seen all too often, this ruthless enemy routinely surround themselves with innocents."
No U.S. "condolence payments" have been offered but the Afghan government has given the family of each victim $2,000, each wounded victim $1,000 and a government-sponsored trip to the Haj, for a total sum of 9.3 million Afghanis, or $185,597.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said it will release its own report on the attack next week.
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