U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan tests McChrystal's new order

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 17, 2009 

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — An airstrike that Afghan officials allege killed at least four civilians Wednesday is the first test of a new U.S. directive that American troops let Taliban fighters flee if civilian lives are at risk.

U.S. officials said Friday that it wasn't at all clear that the civilians had been killed in an airstrike in southern Afghanistan, saying the casualties appear to have been victims of small arms fires.

However, the quick denunciation of the deaths by the governor of Kandahar province, an ally of President Hamid Karzai, shows how sensitive the issue of civilian casualties has become, even as the American military vows to reduce them and to investigate the latest allegation.

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, ordered American ground troops two weeks ago to avoid calling in airstrikes if civilian lives are at risk, in an effort to avoid casualties and to show the local population that U.S. forces are here to protect them.

In a community in which technology and literacy are scarce, however, the first version of events usually prevails, and that appeared to be the case Friday.

Throughout Kandahar, residents charged that their relatives were missing or injured at the hands of an overzealous foreign force, even though the facts weren't clear.

The mayor of Kandahar city, Toryalai Weesa, joined the governor, charging that an airstrike that U.S. forces launched Wednesday night in the village of Shawalikot, about 20 miles north of Kandahar, killed four civilians and injured 13, including women and children.

American ground troops called in the airstrike, the Afghan officials said, during a battle with Taliban gunmen. Shawalikot is a known Taliban stronghold.

U.S. officials have said that McChrystal's directive, which was posted on the American military's Afghanistan Facebook page as well as distributed to troops and commanders, doesn't prohibit airstrikes. However, it does call for troops to weigh carefully whether to call them in, and not to do so if civilian lives are at risk and U.S. troops can employ other tactics safely.

The directive immediately became part of Afghanistan's presidential campaign, which culminates Aug. 20. Some politicians, including Karzai, took credit for the change.

Weesa didn't know how many Taliban had been killed but said that the soldiers' actions had cost them local support. Weesa, who's lived in the United States, was appointed by Karzai.

Local officials allowed reporters to film the scene in a hospital where some of the injured were being treated. Many were wrapped in bandages, but there was no way to tell from the images how they'd been injured.

U.S. military officials acknowledged that they'd launched an air attack in the area but said they hadn't confirmed reports of deaths or injuries due to the strike.

"We have not been able to independently verify reports of civilian deaths and are working with local officials to determine the cause of these reported injuries," according to a senior coalition military officer in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to journalists. "Coalition forces continue to engage insurgents in the area."

Ron Hoffmann, the outgoing Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan, said Friday that Karzai had raised the issue with him during their farewell meeting. Karzai, he said, was troubled by the incident.

"The operational plan in place does allow them to call in (air) support. It's still a war, and sometime these things are going to happen and civilian casualties are going to happen," Hoffmann said. "The president recognizes this."

(McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this report.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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