- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan | Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Wednesday expressed “personal regret” for recent U.S. air strikes that killed Afghan civilians, and pledged more accurate targeting in the future.

Mr. Gates’ unusual apology followed a frank assessment from the top military commander in Afghanistan: There aren’t enough U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan so the military is relying more heavily on air power, and air power runs a greater risk of civilian deaths.

After meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other senior government officials, Mr. Gates said at a news conference, “As I told them, I offer all Afghans my sincere condolences and personal regret for the recent loss of innocent life as a result of coalition air strikes.”

Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, had said earlier that the chronic shortage of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is forcing commanders to rely more on air combat. U.S. air strikes that kill civilians have angered and embarrassed the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

Mr. Gates said the U.S. military takes extraordinary precautions to avoid civilian casualties, but added, “It is clear that we have to work even harder.” He told Afghan officials that he would discuss the issue with American commanders and pilots on Wednesday.

Later, Mr. Gates flew to Bagram, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, and received a briefing on procedures for using air power. “As I told President Karzai this morning, we are very concerned about this,” Mr. Gates told reporters after the briefing. “It’s a very high priority for us.”

He agreed to an Afghan government proposal to create a permanent joint investigative group to probe any incident involving civilian casualties, rather than assigning investigators to individual cases as they arrive, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.

There have been a series of attacks in Afghanistan that resulted in civilian deaths — most notably the highly publicized allegations that a U.S. attack on an Afghan village compound on Aug. 22 killed as many as 90 Afghan civilians, including women and children. The U.S. military has disputed the allegation but also has opened a new investigation to consider emerging evidence.

Gen. McKiernan said he needs at least three more combat brigades, besides the one arriving in January. Without the additional troops, the war will be longer and deadlier, he said.

“The danger is that we’ll be here longer and we’ll expend more resources and experience more human suffering than if we had more resources placed against this campaign sooner,” he told reporters traveling with Mr. Gates.

He also said he knows he can only get more combat forces if troops are diverted from Iraq. The Army brigade arriving in Afghanistan in January was initially scheduled to go to Iraq, and it includes about 3,700 soldiers.

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