The top U.S. general in Afghanistan, David McKiernan, has called for a new investigation into air strikes last month in western Herat Province that UN and Afghan teams say killed 90 civilians.
The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan has consistently rejected the death toll stated by the Afghan and UN investigators. The coalition's public information officers have maintained that only five to seven civilians were killed in the August 22 attack on the village of Azizabad -- along with 30 to 35 Taliban fighters.
But on September 7, U.S. General David McKiernan said in a statement that there is "emerging evidence" about the incident, and that he has requested that the U.S. Central Command send new officers to review the previous U.S. investigation and its findings.
McKiernan heads the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, which works alongside the U.S.-led coalition. He is also the most senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
If the death toll of 90 civilians is confirmed, it would be one of the deadliest air strikes to mistakenly hit civilians since the removal of the Taliban from government nearly seven years ago.
The Afghan government says its intelligence agency has video footage that backs up its claim of more than 90 dead. And United Nations spokesman Adrian Edwards says UN investigators maintain that many women and children were among the dead.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has already dismissed two generals from the Afghan National Army, saying they mistakenly told foreign forces to target a location where there were civilians instead of insurgents. But that has not lessened the criticism being leveled against U.S.-led coalition forces.
McKiernan's call for a new review comes as the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch released a report warning that such air strikes are fuelling a public backlash against the central government in Kabul and against the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.
Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, tells RFE/RL the problem is compounded when the U.S. military issues denials -- apparently before incidents have been properly investigated.
"They've done that on a number of occasions. Before the U.S. has investigated it, they have made their own claims -- which come across as propaganda and hurt their credibility," Adams says.
"U.S. investigations are not transparent. They are not clear [as to] what they find when they investigate. They don't have an automatic impulse to make the results of their investigation public. We often don't know on what basis they say [a certain] number of people were killed when other people -- journalists, the Afghan government, local residents -- say a higher number of people were killed. And this is really a problem because they are losing the information war."
Adams says it is a problem that is causing the U.S.-led coalition to fail in its efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. "The reputation of the U.S. forces is now in real peril. And part of it is because they don't put information out. And people don't necessarily trust their information when they do put it out," he says. "They need to change their mentality and really get into the business of admitting failure when it exists, putting out accurate statements, not putting out preemptively inaccurate statements or statements that contain a lot of spin. [They need to] regain their credibility."
Deaths Nearly Tripled
The study by Human Rights Watch has taken more than 2 1/2 years. It says civilian deaths from air strikes in Afghanistan nearly tripled between 2006 and 2007.
It concludes that the U.S. military, in particular, doesn't take adequate precautions to protect civilians when air strikes are called in by troops who come under attack by guerrilla fighters.
"What we've found is that when the Pentagon plans air strikes, they have very strict criteria for protecting civilians. And they do a good job of intelligence gathering. And they have been able to carry out those air strikes with great precision -- leading to almost no civilian deaths," Adams says.
"But almost all of the civilian casualties from air strikes come when U.S. troops are on the ground, finding themselves under fire, and calling in air strikes that are not planned," Adams continues. "In those cases, they often have very bad intelligence. Sometimes they are getting false information from local Afghans on the ground. That information could be mistaken. But often, we think it is because they are pointing the finger at the wrong people intentionally -- often trying to get the U.S. to bomb their enemies."
Adams says Human Rights Watch has no specific information about the Afghan generals who have been sacked over the Azizabad bombing last month. But he says there are many other cases in which Afghans have given wrong information about their local rivals to NATO or U.S. forces.
"In the past, we have evidence of people operating both within the Afghan National Army, in the police, in local governments, and in government-supported militias -- using foreign forces to settle their scores," Adams says. "What we do know is that the U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom has chosen lots of unsavory allies. Almost since the U.S. invasion in 2001, they have been consistently getting bad information from some of them, and have been acting on it in many cases. So this is a big concern."
Adams concludes that foreign forces will continue to lose support from ordinary Afghans if they continue to appear more concerned about public relations than helping civilians who are innocent victims of air strikes.
"It's absolutely critical for the victims and their family members to get compensation as soon as possible," he said. "The U.S. plays this game, generally, where they deny liability and responsibility. Often, later, they come to the conclusion that they were responsible."
The U.S. public relations strategy appears to be backfiring, Adams says. "They'd be much better off saying: 'We are really sorry. These are mistakes. We will try to make sure they never happen again and, in the meantime, we are going to take care of all these people.' Instead, what they do is they drag it out. They act like they don't owe anybody compensation. They create a lot of anger in the community and they make themselves seem like the occupying power that they say they are not."
The spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, Brigadier General Richard Blanchette, says the new investigation is aimed at reassuring civilians that the military is taking full responsibility for the incident. Although Blanchette would not yet disclose details about the new evidence that has emerged, he says the information is relevant to understanding the truth and needs to be reviewed by the U.S. Central Command.
"We wanted to get to the bottom of the story to get the truth out," Blanchette said. "We believe that with some new evidence that we have received, that it was worthwhile having someone from Central Command in the U.S. come down and review the findings of the investigation because we want to be sure that the people of Afghanistan have the complete picture of the truth."