- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - The United States is increasing cooperation with the Afghan military, including sharing sensitive information about suspected extremists, in hopes of reducing civilian deaths that undermine support for the military mission in Afghanistan, a top Pentagon official said Tuesday.

Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy said the Obama administration wants a closer partnership with Afghans in every aspect of U.S. military operations, “from intelligence to planning to actual execution.”

“That includes the most sensitive kinds of direct action that we are undertaking against extremist elements,” Flournoy told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Her remarks added few details to sketchy plans announced in February to increase the number of Afghans who will take part in U.S. operations. The U.S. military also wrote new rules last year intended to cut down on the deaths of innocent Afghans, but they still occur, especially in nighttime raids.

Flournoy was a chief architect of President Barack Obama’s revamped military and development strategy for the stalemated Afghan war. Describing the new plan, Flournoy said the U.S. military has developed new procedures for cooperation with the Afghan Ministry of Defense and the Afghan armed forces over the past several weeks. She was not specific about how that partnership would change on the ground.

Training and equipping the Afghan defense and security forces so they can contain the Taliban-led insurgency is a key element of the exit strategy for U.S. and other Western troops. Close cooperation and intelligence sharing carries the risk, however, that information could be traded to Taliban or other insurgent forces and used against U.S. or NATO-led forces.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai increasingly has complained about what he calls careless or overbearing U.S. military strikes that kill civilians, and had demanded more U.S.-Afghan military cooperation.

On Saturday, Karzai asked the top U.S. general in Afghanistan to explain allegations of six civilian deaths in two recent incidents. It was the second time in three days Karzai brought up the topic with Gen. David McKiernan.

McKiernan said international forces investigate all allegations of civilian deaths and pay compensation for wrongful deaths.

“Apologies are not sufficient, so we do try to compensate families and communities where we’ve made mistakes. But that’s not sufficient either,” the four-star general said. “There’s not enough money in the world to replace the loss of a family member.”

The issue of civilian casualties is extremely difficult in Afghanistan, where militants don’t wear uniforms and even innocent villagers will defend their homes with gunfire if unknown soldiers enter their village at night. Journalists rarely can travel to the sites of battles to verify claims by villagers of civilian deaths.

The United Nations has said a record 2,118 civilians died in the Afghan war last year, a 40 percent increase over 2007. The U.N. said U.S., NATO and Afghan forces killed 829 civilians, or 39 percent of the total. Of those, 552 deaths were blamed on airstrikes.

Flournoy acknowledged that civilian deaths erode Afghan support for the U.S. and allied military mission in Afghanistan, and said closer coordination with the Afghan military will give U.S. commanders the benefit of Afghan expertise and sensitivities.

Although Flournoy did not spell it out, that presumably would afford commanders better information about how a given attack on suspected insurgents might affect local villagers or how it might be portrayed by local leaders or opinion-makers.

Separately, Flournoy predicted that the Afghan government’s effort to blunt the insurgency by “flipping” the allegiances of Taliban foot soldiers will take time, and that traction would only come when the tide of the war turns.

“It’s very hard to interest people in reconciliation when they think their cause is winning,” Flournoy said.

She made clear the United States would support peace efforts at arm’s length for now.

Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, told a Harvard University audience that the Iraq model of reconciliation with former insurgents offers promise in Afghanistan.

Petraeus did not directly answer a question about whether Afghanistan is “doable” given the limited military and other resources the United States can spare for the effort.

“The context in which we’re operating is one where we’re literally going to have to make that kind of assessment, probably, the first one, by the end of this year,” Petraeus said. “We’re going to put substantial additional resources in this year, in terms of military, financial and civilians. We do believe that we can achieve progress. But it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

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