Gates, Karzai Discuss Civilian Casualties, Drawdown

KABUL, Afghanistan, March 7, 2011 — Civil­ian casu­al­ties and the impend­ing draw­down of U.S. forces in Afghanistan high­light­ed a dis­cus­sion here today between Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates and Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai.
Gates and Karzai met at the pres­i­den­tial palace and then par­tic­i­pat­ed in a joint news con­fer­ence.

Wel­com­ing Gates for his 13th vis­it to Afghanistan as defense sec­re­tary, Karzai said the sec­re­tary is a “high­ly respect­ed” U.S. Cab­i­net mem­ber, a great friend of Afghanistan, and an impor­tant ele­ment of the two nations’ grow­ing part­ner­ship.

The pres­i­dent said he and the sec­re­tary dis­cussed many issues: train­ing Afghan secu­ri­ty forces, the strate­gic part­ner­ship between the two coun­tries, and the start of tran­si­tion­ing secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty in his coun­try to his country’s forces.

“Of course, civil­ian casu­al­ties was one of the issues we dis­cussed,” Karzai said.

NATO heli­copter crews killed nine Afghan boys in a March 1 inci­dent. The NATO-led Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force issued a state­ment March 2 accept­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty and apol­o­giz­ing for the deaths.

“The inci­dent occurred fol­low­ing insur­gent rock­et attacks on [For­ward Oper­at­ing Base] Bless­ing,” the state­ment said. “Coali­tion forces returned fire at the assessed point of ori­gin with indi­rect and aer­i­al fire. Regret­tably, there appears to have been an error in the hand-off between iden­ti­fy­ing the loca­tion of the insur­gents and the attack heli­copters that car­ried out sub­se­quent oper­a­tions.”

The state­ment includ­ed a per­son­al apol­o­gy from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, ISAF com­man­der.

Gates today said he, too, apol­o­gized for the deaths.

“This breaks our heart,” the sec­re­tary said, terming the deaths not only a trag­ic loss to their fam­i­lies, but also a set­back to U.S.-Afghan rela­tions.

“We have been work­ing extreme­ly hard … to avoid civil­ian casu­al­ties,” Gates said, adding that even includ­ing the boys’ deaths, coali­tion forces have reduced civil­ian deaths over the last cou­ple of years.

Gates said he per­son­al­ly apol­o­gized to Karzai. “I know these tragedies weigh heav­i­ly on his heart and cre­ate prob­lems for him as the leader and pro­tec­tor of the Afghan peo­ple,” he added.

The two nations must con­tin­ue work­ing to strength­en the “sig­nif­i­cant secu­ri­ty gains” that make Afghanistan increas­ing­ly safer for all of its cit­i­zens, Gates said.

“Tonight Pres­i­dent Karzai and I had a very pro­duc­tive dis­cus­sion about how to main­tain this momen­tum, as we look for­ward to begin­ning the for­mal tran­si­tion to Afghan secu­ri­ty lead this sum­mer,” he said.

Gates said when he last vis­it­ed Afghanistan in Decem­ber, he found coali­tion and Afghan forces’ gains against insur­gents had exceed­ed his expec­ta­tions, and from what he’s seen so far on this trip, that progress con­tin­ues.

“They have not let up pres­sure on the ene­my at all this win­ter,” he said. “In fact, we are con­duct­ing a record num­ber of oper­a­tions.”

The sec­re­tary said those ISAF-Afghan oper­a­tions are expand­ing secu­ri­ty zones in the east around Kab­ul and Jalal­abad, free­ing pop­u­la­tion cen­ters and com­merce routes from insur­gent dis­rup­tion.

“As a result, com­merce has grown and dis­tant provinces are increas­ing­ly con­nect­ed to major mar­ket­places,” Gates said, not­ing sim­i­lar results can be seen in Afghanistan’s south. “A sem­blance of nor­mal­cy is now begin­ning to return to local pop­u­la­tions, now free of [Tal­iban] threat,” he said.

Ulti­mate­ly, coali­tion and Afghan forces aim to link secu­ri­ty zones around Hel­mand and Kan­da­har in the south and Kab­ul in the east, the sec­re­tary said.

“Because of the shared sac­ri­fices of Afghan and coali­tion forces,” he said, “we are now clos­er than ever to Pres­i­dent Karzai’s goal of build­ing Afghan nation­al secu­ri­ty forces that can take the lead in their nation’s secu­ri­ty.”

As Karzai’s gov­ern­ment plans for that tran­si­tion, Gates said, the coali­tion is exam­in­ing how best to redis­trib­ute forces when the secu­ri­ty trans­fer process begins.

“In my view, we will be well-posi­tioned to begin draw­ing down some U.S. and coali­tion forces this July, even if we rede­ploy oth­ers to dif­fer­ent areas of the coun­try,” he said.

“We are not leav­ing Afghanistan this sum­mer,” the sec­re­tary stressed. “Come Sep­tem­ber, Octo­ber and beyond, there will still be sub­stan­tial num­bers of coali­tion forces here, still part­ner­ing with Afghans and still main­tain­ing unre­lent­ing pres­sure on our ene­my.”

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

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