- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2009

TAGAB VALLEY, Afghanistan | U.S. commanders on Tuesday traveled to a poor Afghan village and distributed $40,000 to relatives of 15 people killed in a U.S. raid, including a known militant commander. The Americans also apologized for any civilians killed in the operation.

The issue of civilian deaths is increasingly sensitive in Afghanistan, with President Hamid Karzai accusing the U.S. of killing civilians in three separate cases over the past month. Mr. Karzai has repeatedly warned the U.S. and NATO that such deaths undermine his government and the international mission.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates echoed Mr. Karzai’s concerns, telling a Senate committee that “civilian casualties are doing us enormous harm in Afghanistan.”

As U.S. commanders paid villagers near 15 newly dug graves, Mr. Karzai met Tuesday in the capital with relatives of some of those killed. He told the villagers he has given the U.S. and NATO one month to respond to a draft agreement calling for increased Afghan participation in military operations.

The U.S. is doubling its troop presence in Afghanistan this year to take on the Taliban militia; the Taliban and other militants now control wide swaths of territory. Last year, 151 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan, the most in any year since the U.S. invaded the Taliban-ruled country in late 2001 for sheltering Osama bin Laden.

On Tuesday, NATO said thousands of U.S. troops originally destined for Iraq have been deployed south of Afghanistan’s capital. Nearly 3,000 American soldiers with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, N.Y., moved into the provinces of Logar and Wardak to the south of Kabul, the military alliance said. They will serve as part of the 55,000-strong NATO force in the country.

Col. Greg Julian, the top U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan, led Tuesday’s delegation into the village of Inzeri, a small collection of stone and mud homes set high in a steep, rocky valley. Insurgents have a strong presence in the region just 30 miles north of Kabul.

A raid the night of Jan. 19 killed 15 people in Inzeri, including a targeted militant commander named Mullah Patang. Afghan officials admit that Patang was killed, but villagers say civilians also died and have pressed their complaints with U.S. officials and Mr. Karzai.

The U.S. regularly makes payments to Afghan relatives of those killed in operations, but the payments are rarely publicized.

Col. Julian told villagers that U.S. forces did not come Jan. 19 intending to fight, but opened fire after villagers fired on them. Many Afghan families are armed.

“Perhaps there may have been some people accidentally killed,” Col. Julian said. “If there was collateral damage, I’m very sorry about that.”

U.S. officials paid $40,000 in Afghan currency to representatives of the 15 people killed - $2,500 for each death plus $500 for two wounded men and $1,500 for village repairs.

Lt. Col. Steven Weir, a military lawyer who helped oversee the payments, said they were not an admission by the U.S. that innocents were killed. “It’s a condolence payment,” he said.

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