WASHINGTON — A U.S. military probe has found that U.S. staff made significant mistakes in carrying out deadly airstrikes in Afghanistan last month that killed dozens of civilians, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
"American personnel made significant errors in carrying out some of the airstrikes in western Afghanistan on May 4 that killed dozens of Afghan civilians," the report said, citing an unnamed senior U.S. military official.
Civilian casualties, many of which result from of U.S. air power, have caused mounting outrage in Afghanistan and friction with the Kabul government, with U.S. and Western officials worried about handing propaganda victories to the Taliban.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded a halt in airstrikes after the May 4 incident at Bala Buluk, one of the deadliest such incidents of the war in which his government says 140 civilians died.
A U.S. military investigation admitted that 20-30 civilians were killed along with 60-65 insurgents. Afghanistan's top rights body said 97 civilians, most of them children, were believed to have died.
"The civilian death toll would probably have been reduced if American air crews and forces on the ground had followed strict rules devised to prevent civilian casualties," the Times reported the U.S. official as saying.
"Had the rules been followed, at least some of the strikes by American warplanes against half a dozen targets over seven hours would have been aborted," it added.
"The report represents the clearest American acknowledgement of fault in connection with the attacks," the Times said.
"It will give new ammunition to critics, including many Afghans, who complain that American forces too often act indiscriminately in calling in airstrikes, jeopardizing the United States mission by turning the civilian population against American forces and their ally, the Afghan government."
The general chosen to lead U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan warned the Congress hours earlier that the war against insurgents could be lost unless civilian casualties were reduced.
Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, nominated to take over as commander in Afghanistan, said civilian deaths from coalition operations risked alienating the Afghan people and undermining the entire war effort.
The U.S. military in Kabul said it could not comment on the Central Command investigation, as it had not yet seen the report.
Video taken from a B-1 bomber, however, had clearly shown there were Taliban fighters in the targeted buildings, a spokeswoman said.
"We were called in to support Afghan forces on the ground under fire," Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker told AFP.
"We came in on a rescue mission. Commanders on the ground made the decision they felt was best," she said, adding "a lot consideration was given to where civilians may have been."
The Taliban militia on Wednesday released findings of what it called its own investigation into the incident, listing the names and ages of 142 civilians out of 166 it claims were killed.
It confirmed its fighters clashed with Afghan and foreign troops, whom it labeled "looters" and "invaders," but said the Taliban had made a "tactical withdrawal" and the bombing started 10 hours afterwards.
The Taliban regularly issue inaccurate statements with propaganda a key tactic in their insurgency.
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