IHT : Gates apologizes for Afghan deaths

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Gates apologizes for Afghan deaths

By Thom Shanker | September 17, 2008

KABUL: The U.S. defense secretary, Robert Gates, expressed "sincere condolences and personal regrets" Wednesday for the deaths of Afghan civilians during recent airstrikes and announced a series of new measures designed to make amends when innocents are killed.

Gates accepted a proposal from Afghan officials to establish a permanent joint investigative group to rapidly determine the facts surrounding incidents of civilian casualties.

And he pledged that even before all the facts are known, the United States would apologize for civilian casualties and offer compensation to survivors.

"I think the key for us is, on those rare occasions when we do make a mistake, when there is an error, to apologize quickly, to compensate the victims quickly and then carry out the investigation," Gates said.

He said he ordered the new measures "so people know most of all that we care about them" and to prove that when there are civilian casualties, "We are sorry for that and we are going to make amends as quickly as possible."

The new policy is a clear indication that the United States and its NATO allies fear they risk losing the support of the Afghan people, and of the world community, for the stabilization mission here.

Even so, senior Pentagon officials say that incidents of civilian casualties are trumpeted by the Taliban and Al Qaeda as proof of American injustice and that many of those reports are exaggerated or false.

Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said that the idea to create a permanent joint investigative body for incidents of civilian casualties was raised by senior Afghan officials and that Gates, during a day of meetings here Wednesday, officially agreed to the plan.

In several recent cases of civilian casualties, separate investigations by the Afghan government, U.S. military and international organizations have returned with conflicting assessments.

On his fourth visit to Afghanistan as defense secretary, Gates acknowledged the need for more troops here.

On Tuesday, the senior American commander, General David McKiernan, said for the first time that he needed three combat brigades of 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers each over and above the one extra battalion of 500 to 1,500 soldiers and one extra brigade that President George W. Bush has ordered to arrive here by early next year.

"My expectation is that we will be able to meet the requirements the commanders have here during the course of 2009," Gates said.

But he did not give exact figures for reinforcements, nor did he say whether any additional increases would come from the American military or if allies would be pressed to fill the short-fall in troops identified by McKiernan.

The defense secretary gave an impassioned restatement of the American commitment to the Afghanistan conflict, which often has been described as the forgotten war since vastly more resources were committed to U.S. forces in Iraq.

"You have seen the face of the enemy, the ruthlessness and the determination," he said.

"Let there be no doubt that the United States and our many partners around the world are just as determined to help you win the peace and freedom you deserve."