- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 20, 2009

A failure by U.S. forces to follow procedures in air strikes last month in Afghanistan “likely” caused the death of at least 26 civilians, the U.S. military said Friday.

During a May 4 battle with Taliban insurgents in western Afghanistan, U.S. air crews and ground troops acted in line with the laws of armed conflict, but three air strikes by a B-1 bomber “did not adhere to all of the specific guidance” under U.S. combat rules and orders, a military investigation concluded.

“Not applying all of that guidance likely resulted in civilian casualties,” said a summary of the probe released Friday.

The investigation found that 26 civilians died in the incident, but said it was possible that a higher number were killed.

The Afghan government has put the civilian toll at 140 for the incident, which has fueled public anger and led President Hamid Karzai to demand a halt in air strikes.

The investigators wrote that “no one will ever be able conclusively to determine the number of civilian casualties that occurred on May 4, 2009.”

The report recommended tactics and combat rules be reviewed and refined to avoid civilian casualties but did not call for prosecution of any U.S. military personnel.

The report described an intense battle, with Afghan security forces calling for assistance from a team of U.S. Marines near the village of Gerani in the Farah province.

Trying to help Afghan forces pinned down by the insurgent gunfire and secure the evacuation of wounded soldiers, the Marine unit called in air power.

A first wave of strikes by F/A-18 fighter jets hit intended targets without causing civilian casualties, according to the report.

After nightfall, a B-1 Lancer bomber was called in to relieve the F/A-18s and carried out three strikes using 500-pound and 2,000-pound bombs.

In two of the three raids, the bombing likely caused civilian deaths, the report said.

In both instances, air crews and the ground commander thought they were targeting insurgent forces that were still firing on Afghan government and coalition forces.

U.S. and NATO officials have grown increasingly concerned about the effect of civilian casualties on the war effort, amid public anger among Afghans and tensions with the Kabul government over the issue.

The probe also called for improved public relations efforts in cooperation with Afghan ministries, better communication with nongovernmental organizations and the creation of investigative teams to quickly respond to reports of possible civilian casualties.

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