- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 5, 2009

A U.S. jet dropped 500-pound bombs on two hijacked fuel tankers in northern Afghanistan on Friday, killing dozens of Taliban fighters and possibly some civilians at a time when the Obama administration is reassessing its strategy there and trying to shore up support in both Afghanistan and the United States for the eight-year war.

U.S. and NATO officials said they were investigating the air strike, which was requested by a German contingent and carried out early Friday in Kunduz province. The Taliban has been escalating attacks there while U.S.-led forces concentrate on the south and east. Afghan officials said dozens of civilians were killed, but U.S. officials would not confirm that any civilians had died.

The incident comes at a delicate time, as the U.S.-led coalition struggles to gain the confidence of the Afghan people.

Hours before the strike, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that civilian casualties had dropped in recent months. In May, U.S. warplanes struck militants in the country’s western Farah province, killing an estimated 60 to 65 fighters. The U.S. said 20 to 30 civilians also died, but the Afghan government said 140 civilians were killed.

The latest strike also came days came after Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, delivered to the Pentagon and NATO a long-awaited reassessment of Afghan strategy. The Washington Times, quoting a senior U.S. military official, reported that the assessment, which has not been made public, focuses on strengthening and partnering with Afghan security forces “down to the platoon level” and limiting air strikes or other military activities that could cause large numbers of civilian casualties.

Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell told The Times that Gen. McChrystal, in admonishing U.S. forces to be careful not to kill civilians, “didn’t do so with the idea that there would never be a civilian casualty again but that it would hopefully dramatically reduce those casualties, and thus far we’ve seen dramatic improvement.”

Mr. Morrell added that the latest incident “is still under investigation but if any civilian was killed we deeply regret it.”

“We are doing the absolute best we possibly can to prevent civilian casualties. We do not want to achieve tactical victories that result in strategic defeats. …We do not wish, in the process of winning small battles, to do so in a manner that ends up alienating more Afghan people.”

German officials told the Associated Press that about 50 militants were killed. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, however, acknowledged some civilians may have died during the strike, which occurred near the village of Omar Khel. The area is north of Kabul and about 5 miles southwest of a small German military base.

Afghan officials said the attack killed between 50 and 90 civilians.

Brig.-Gen. Eric Tremblay, the NATO spokesman, said the coalition “will do whatever is necessary to help the community, including medical assistance and evacuation as requested.” He said that the international force “regrets any unnecessary loss of human life and is deeply concerned for the suffering that this action may have caused our Afghan friends.”

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the air strike would be investigated and he expressed his concern about the incident.

“Obviously, any time there is loss of life in a conflict like this, particularly the civilian loss of life, it’s something we’ve expressed in the past and continue to express great concern about,” he told reporters.

He said the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, had worked on other similar investigations and offered U.S. condolences to those affected by the strike.

Mohammad Yawar, a local government spokesman in the region where the strike occurred, said Afghan police found weapon parts amid the debris. He told the AP that he estimated more than 70 people were killed, at least 45 of them militants.

The local governor, Mohammad Omar, said 72 were killed and 15 wounded. He said about 30 of the dead were insurgents, including four Chechens and a local Taliban commander. The rest were probably fighters or their relatives, he told the AP.

The bodies of those who had been killed were reported to be burned beyond recognition, and tribal villagers in the area buried some in a mass grave.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told the AP the trucks were intercepted on their way from Tajikistan to supply NATO forces in Kabul. When the hijackers tried to drive the trucks across the Kunduz River, the vehicles became stuck in the mud and the insurgents opened valves to release fuel and lighten the loads, he said.

Abdul Moman Omar Khel, a member of the Kunduz provincial council and a native of the village, told the AP that 500 people surrounded the trucks after the Taliban invited them to help themselves to the fuel.

“The Taliban called to the villagers, ‘Come take free fuel,’ ” he said. “The people are so hungry and poor.”

He told the AP that five people were killed from a single family, and a man he knows lost three sons.

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