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Civilian Casualties Stir Dispute With Afghan Government

May 21, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, civilian casualties in the Afghanistan war. Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: The initial reports, more than two weeks ago now, were horrific: Nearly 150 dead civilians, allegedly killed by U.S. air strikes in Farah province in western Afghanistan after a pitched battle between a joint U.S.-Afghan force and insurgents.

The early dispatches focused on swiftly dug mass graves, reports that 90 children had died, and swift compensation doled out by the Afghan government.

ABDUL GHAFAR (through translator): All my relatives have been killed, my cousins, uncles, my sister, my nephews. They were all there, and all of them have been killed.

RAY SUAREZ: U.S. officials, however, disputed those high figures and said many fewer civilians died and that the Taliban had purposely hidden among villagers.

Yesterday, the U.S. military said it had concluded that between 20 and 30 noncombatants were killed and 60 or more Taliban, but, they conceded, the final toll may never be known.

Earlier this week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, linked the issue of civilian deaths to the new counterinsurgency strategy being implemented.

ADM. MIKE MULLEN, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: We can’t keep going through incidents like this and expect the strategy to work. At the same time, we can’t tie our troops’ hands behind their backs.

So we’ve got to be very, very focused on making sure that we proceed deliberately, that we know who the enemy is, and, in fact, the enemy uses this very effectively against us.

Minimizing civilian deaths

RAY SUAREZ: The May 4th air raid came after concerted efforts by U.S. and coalition forces to minimize the number of civilian dead in both air and land operations. Nevertheless, 2008 saw more than 2,000 civilians killed in fighting.

In a mid-March interview with the NewsHour, the outgoing commander of all forces in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, said 80 percent of civilian deaths were caused by insurgents and that his forces actively try to avoid or minimize those casualties.

GEN. DAVID MCKIERNAN, U.S. commander in Afghanistan: We do have procedures in place for our tactical units to exercise good judgment, proportionality, to try to make sure that escalation of the use of lethal force is appropriate.

But at the end of the day, we place judgment -- we place great faith on the judgment of our junior leaders, and they do an incredible job. But everyone needs to remember that, by the very nature of an insurgency, the threat, the enemy mixes in on purpose with the civilian population.

RAY SUAREZ: The issue has created tension between the coalition and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He's repeatedly called for the outright suspension of U.S. bombing runs.

Reports of the Farah bombing reached Washington on the morning Karzai sat down with Secretary of State Clinton.

HILLARY CLINTON, secretary of State: I wish to express, you know, my personal regret and certainly the sympathy of our administration on the loss of civilian life in Afghanistan. We deeply regret it. We don't know all of the circumstances or causes, and there will be a joint investigation by your government and ours.

RAY SUAREZ: Karzai struck a measured tone.

HAMID KARZAI, president of Afghanistan: Madam Secretary, thank you very much for showing concern and regret for the civilian casualties that are caused, especially for the one that was caused yesterday. We appreciate that.

And we hope we can work together towards reducing and eventually completely removing the possibilities of civilian casualties as we move ahead in our war against terrorism or in our struggle against terrorism.

RAY SUAREZ: Dealing with civilian casualties will be a key issue as new U.S. commanders accompany thousands of additional U.S. troops heading to Afghanistan in the coming weeks.