A top aide defended Gen. David McKiernan after his dismissal as Afghanistan theater commander Monday, saying many of the civilians who died in U.S. air strikes last week had been forced into target buildings by the Taliban and required to shoot at government forces.
The Afghan government says nearly 150 people died in the strikes in the western province of Farah, angering the administration of President Hamid Karzai, who raised the issue with President Obama in Washington last week.
There had also been unhappiness within the Pentagon about the handling of civilian casualties by Gen. McKiernan, who will be replaced by Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, a former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command who is currently director of the Joint Staff.
Lt. Col. Greg Julian, a spokesman for Gen. McKiernan, told The Washington Times that an investigation of last week’s incident showed the Taliban was principally to blame for the civilian deaths.
“This was a deliberate plan by the Taliban to create a civilian casualty crisis,” Col. Julian said. “These were not human shields; these were human sacrifices. We have intelligence that points to this. Patient after patient just kept telling the doctors their story and how they were forced by the Taliban to stay in these locations.”
The dismissal - announced as a bid to bring “fresh eyes” to the situation - took Gen. McKiernan and his support staff by surprise, said U.S. defense officials with knowledge of the situation. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject.
In a brief statement, Gen. McKiernan said simply that the Afghan people “deserve security, government that meets their expectations and a better future than the last 30 years of conflict have witnessed.”
“While the Taliban and other terrorist groups offer only lies and fear, our continued efforts promote freedom and hope,” he added.
The removal of Gen. McKiernan marks the fifth time Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has replaced a four-star commander. Army Gen. George W. Casey, the current Army chief of staff, was moved out as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq in 2007, along with U.S. Central Command commander Gen. John Abizaid.
In June 2007, Mr. Gates ended the career of Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace by not appointing him to a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley was replaced in 2008 after several serious mishaps related to Air Force handling of nuclear weapons.
Gen. McChrystal, whose appointment is subject to Senate confirmation, has spent most of his career working in counterintelligence and led operations aimed at targeting terrorists, such as the deadly attack on al Qaeda’s top Iraq leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, in 2006.
Mr. Gates indicated in announcing the change of command that he wanted to change strategy toward the Taliban, which is expected to increase operations this spring and summer to counteract an influx of 21,000 additional U.S. troops. U.S. officials are also expecting violence to escalate during presidential elections in Afghanistan in August.
“As I have said many times before, very few of these problems can be solved by military means alone,” Mr. Gates said. “And yet, from the military perspective, we can and must do better. It’s time for new leadership and fresh eyes.”
A military officer in Afghanistan said rumors about Gen. McKiernan’s replacement began circulating over the weekend and that the main reason was a desire for “new leadership all around.”
“I think it is more civilian-military relations-related,” said the officer, who also spoke on the condition he not be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. “We do not have and have not had good civ-mil integration between the senior leadership in this country.”
A defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to project his job, said he also thought the change of commander was prompted by political concerns involving the loss of civilian lives.
Mr. Karzai has long been outspoken about the need to minimize U.S. air strikes because of civilian deaths, which he said gives the Taliban a propaganda victory and undermines his government’s ability to quell the militants.
On Thursday, U.S. officials acknowledged that civilian deaths in Farah province may have been caused by U.S. air strikes. But Col. Julian said a subsequent investigation indicated that the Taliban forced many of the civilians into front-line buildings, where they were told to pick up weapons to shoot at Afghan police.
The Afghan army was called in to back up the police but the fighting intensified, the colonel said. The Afghan army was also under severe fire so the governor of Farah province called the U.S. military for help.
Another defense official involved in the operation, who spoke on the condition he not be named to protect his position, confirmed that the Afghans called for U.S. help.
“At first the Afghans were grateful, so were others in the U.S. as well,” the defense official said.
Taliban insurgents have been waging effective propaganda warfare against U.S. and allied forces by exploiting civilian casualties, some caused by bombing raids and others the result of secret U.S. special operations raids.
Asked about the problem of civilian casualties, Col. Julian said he is “constantly battling allegations of civilian casualties, and it is true that sometimes civilians are accidentally caught in the crossfire.”
“It is a fact that the insurgents create deliberate situations to cause civilian casualties that can be blamed on our forces, they exaggerate, they lie, and they deliberately target Afghan civilians,” he stated in an e-mail.
In one recent incident, a bus carrying Afghan civilians was blown up by an insurgent improvised explosive device and “we later discovered that it was command detonated.”
A second case involved a woman who was shot by either U.S. or enemy fire, he said. “However, we are the ones that medevac all casualties and treat them.”