KABUL (Reuters) – Under pressure over rising civilian deaths in Afghanistan, the U.S. defense chief said on Wednesday that the U.S. military needed to do more to prevent the killing of ordinary Afghans caught up in military operations.
Anger has mounted in Afghanistan over a spike in civilian casualties in recent weeks and it has led to a rift between President Hamid Karzai’s government and its Western backers.
Speaking at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered his condolences for the death of civilians in coalition air strikes and said the U.S. needed to work harder.
“While no military has ever done more to prevent civilian casualties, it is also clear that we have to work even harder,” Gates said.
Gates’s visit to Afghanistan comes weeks after a U.S.-led coalition air strike in western Herat province, which both the Afghan government and the United Nations say killed more than 90 civilians, mostly women and children.
The U.S. military, which said 30 to 35 militants were killed, plans to reopen an investigation after a cell phone video emerged showing bodies of people said to have been killed in the strike.
A surge in the use of air power in Afghanistan has resulted in a high number of civilian casualties, the majority of whom are killed in unplanned “opportunity” strikes when ground troops come under attack, a human rights group said this month.
In the first seven months of this year, at least 119 civilians were killed in air strikes, most in U.S.-led coalition raids, Human Rights Watch said in the report.
“You have my word that we will do everything in our power to find new ways of targeting our common enemies while protecting the good people of Afghanistan,” said Gates. “Our interests are the same as yours.”
Gates flew to Bagram airfield, the main U.S. military base in Afghanistan north of the capital, where he was briefed on air support for military operations.
Speaking after the briefing, Gates said a change in approach in the way incidents of civilian deaths were dealt with would help assure Afghans that the killing of ordinary people was not deliberate.
“I think the key for us, on those rare occasions when we do make a mistake, when there is an error, is to apologize quickly, to compensate the victims quickly and then carry out the investigation,” he said.
“That’s the approach we have had in Iraq and I think we need to move to that here.”
The Pentagon chief’s visit also comes at a time of mounting anger in Pakistan over a series of raids by U.S. forces on Pakistani soil.
The U.S., frustrated with growing cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, has stepped up its strikes on militants in Pakistan, infuriating many Pakistanis who are deeply opposed to the U.S. campaign against the militancy.
When asked about the recent incursions, Gates said he was encouraged by recent Pakistani military operations in the border areas but did not comment on the U.S. raids.
“It is my hope that we can work closely with the Pakistanis to prevent this from being a safe haven that threatens both Afghanistan and a democratic Pakistan,” said Gates.
Gates said the recent rise in violence in Afghanistan was directly related to the safe havens in the border areas.
Violence has surged in Afghanistan this year with nearly 3,000 people killed as a result of the conflict. It has also been the bloodiest summer for foreign troops since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.
On Wednesday a roadside bomb killed four soldiers from the U.S.-led coalition force and an Afghan national in eastern Afghanistan, the U.S. military said in a statement.