Afghanistan — Gates Cites Importance of Preventing Civilian Casualties

ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, April 13, 2010 — Amid new reports of civil­ian casu­al­ties in Kan­da­har, Afghanistan, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates re-empha­sized today the top pri­or­i­ty U.S. and NATO forces have put on pro­tect­ing civil­ian lives, an effort he called crit­i­cal to suc­cess of the Afghanistan strat­e­gy.
The sec­re­tary said the issue is always on the mind of Army Gen. Stan­ley A. McChrys­tal, com­man­der of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
“I think no one has done more to try to reduce civil­ian casu­al­ties and to make the pro­tec­tion of civil­ians in Afghanistan a high­er pri­or­i­ty than Gen­er­al McChrys­tal. Every time I talk to Gen­er­al McChrys­tal, he talks about this,” Gates told reporters dur­ing a flight to Peru, a day after an inci­dent out­side Kan­da­har City in which sev­er­al Afghan civil­ians aboard a pas­sen­ger bus were report­ed killed.

The Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force in Afghanistan released a state­ment yes­ter­day say­ing it deeply regrets the trag­ic loss of life in Kan­da­har.

“[McChrystal’s] view is [that] the civil­ian casu­al­ty ques­tion is a strate­gic ques­tion in Afghanistan,” Gates said. “And I think he thinks that is one of the great­est risks to the suc­cess of our strat­e­gy. And it is why he has been as aggres­sive as he has been.”

McChrys­tal has imposed strict rules of engage­ment on forces in Afghanistan, lim­it­ing the use of close-air sup­port, house-to-house search­es and night raids to reduce civil­ian casu­al­ties.

Gates told reporters he agrees with this approach, but rec­og­nizes that some on Capi­tol Hill and in the mil­i­tary ranks express con­cern that they actu­al­ly go too far. “I don’t believe that,” the sec­re­tary said. “Gen­er­al McChrys­tal does­n’t believe that.”

Ref­er­enc­ing the ongo­ing inves­ti­ga­tion into a Feb­ru­ary inci­dent near Gardez involv­ing civil­ian casu­al­ties, Gates said peo­ple will be held account­able if appro­pri­ate.

“These [inci­dents] are crit­i­cal in ham­per­ing our efforts in Afghanistan,” he said. “And we inves­ti­gate every one of these inci­dents, not only to deter­mine if there is account­abil­i­ty or what actu­al­ly hap­pened, but also to see if there are some lessons to be learned in how to avoid it the next time around.”

Gates expressed frus­tra­tion that inves­ti­ga­tions that get the full sto­ry of what hap­pened can take weeks or months, while the dam­age that results from these inci­dents is imme­di­ate. “But let’s also face the real­i­ty,” the sec­re­tary said. “We are in a war. And our adver­saries, the Tal­iban, min­gle with civil­ians, they use civil­ians, they pur­pose­ly put civil­ians in Afghanistan in harm’s way. And I think we had bet­ter not for­get that real­i­ty as well.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)