The slaughter of dozens of Afghan civilians — either from a U.S. airstrike or from Taliban grenades, or both — sent President Obama and his aides grasping for the right words at a delicate stage in their efforts to win Afghan support for an expanded war.
U.S. success in Afghanistan depends on the trust and good will of ordinary Afghans to defeat a resourceful Taliban insurgency, and every time civilians die it becomes easier to distrust the Americans.
Obama, along with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have offered condolences about the deaths. At the same time, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, suggested the U.S. military may have been framed.
The awkward U.S. response reveals the fragile foundation of Obama’s expanding military campaign in Afghanistan.
“Civilian casualties in Afghanistan, however they occur, pose a risk to our efforts here,” Gates said Thursday during a visit to the war zone.
His unenviable chore: Express sorrow for civilian deaths without taking blame for an incident about which the details still are murky.
“We regret any, even one, innocent civilian casualty and will make whatever amends are necessary,” Gates said. “We have expressed regret regardless of how this occurred.”
Perhaps by Taliban design, the reported deaths came on the eve of Gates’ visit to the country and the symbolic joint visits of the Afghan and Pakistani presidents to Washington.
Continued confusion over just what happened Sunday in the western Farah province revealed how easily the high-tech efficiency of the U.S. military can be thrown off course by low-tech tactics of ambush and propaganda.
The U.S. and Afghan militaries are investigating Sunday’s incident together. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said it was not clear how long the inquiry would last.
Defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said it was likely that in the end some of the deaths would be attributed to the U.S. bombing and some to the Taliban.
Gates said he was aware of a report that the Taliban had used grenades to kill civilians at the site and put the blame on the Americans, but he said that possibility was still under investigation.
“We all know the Taliban use civilian casualties, and sometimes create them, to create problems for the United States and our coalition partners,” Gates said.
Gates went out of his way to show that Washington wasn’t tone-deaf. He opened a news conference with U.S. and Afghan reporters by saying he had reminded the troops he saw about “the importance of showing respect and courtesy to our friends and hosts, the Afghan people.”
An Afghan official said Thursday he collected the names of 147 people who residents say were killed in the disputed incident involving U.S. forces and Taliban militants.
The incident rubs salt in the growing Afghan outrage over the deaths of villagers and farmers who military officials say often are used deliberately as human shields.
Air strikes can be effective — McKiernan said Sunday’s bombing killed some Taliban militants — but they are necessarily overpowering and thus sometimes imprecise.
“Our technical capabilities provide certain assets, but in reality at the end of the day this is a war on the ground, in rural areas, village by village, block by block,” Gates said with a touch of weariness. “Very often modern techniques are very limited in what they can contribute to this fight.”
Gates’ visit, ostensibly to measure U.S. preparations for the addition of more than 20,000 new fighting forces and trainers, was shadowed by questions about the incident.
“What is critical for the success of the Afghan government and for us as the government’s and the Afghan people’s partner is that the Afghan people believe that we are on their side,” and that Americans respect and want to protect them, Gates said.
“Whenever civilian casualties occur, it tends to undermine that important point.”
Anne Gearan and Lara Jakes cover national security issues for The Associated Press. Jakes reported from Kabul.
By Anne Gearan, Lara Jakes