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Gates Examines Close-Air Support at Bagram

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, Sept. 17, 2008 – Avoiding civilian casualties is a high priority for U.S. aircrews, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.

Gates came to Bagram to get a full picture of the American aviation effort in Afghanistan. Civilian casualties from American and NATO bombing attacks are causing fury in parts of Afghanistan.

“We’re very concerned about this; it’s a high priority for us,” Gates said. “We work at that hard, work at it harder and then take another look to see what more we can do to limit innocent people who are killed when we go after our enemies.”

An attack on the village of Shindand in Herat province, Aug. 22, killed at least seven innocent bystanders and allegedly many more. U.S. Central Command has ordered an investigation.

Gates spoke with F-15E Strike Eagle and A-10 Thunderbolt II crews and maintainers who provide close-air support to ground forces in Afghanistan. Earlier today, he met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

“President Karzai told me this morning that the Afghan people still very much believe we are here to help them and overcome their enemies,” Gates said. “They are still very friendly toward the United States. The key for us on those rare occasions when we do make a mistake – when we do make an error – is to apologize quickly, compensate the victims quickly and then carry out the investigation.”

That’s what coalition forces do in Iraq, and it should be the model in Afghanistan “so that people know we do care about them and that we have very deep regret if there is an accident,” the secretary said.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Mike Holmes, the commander of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing based here, released a DVD showing a typical engagement.

A ground unit spotted a truck fleeing an area. It had what appeared to be a launcher on it, and the truck’s occupants had just used it to fire on coalition forces. There were 10 to 15 enemy personnel aboard the truck, in rugged terrain, at night.

Ground controllers vectored an F-15E Strike Eagle to attack the truck. The F-15 pilot – call sign “Dude Zero-5” -- spotted the truck and was prepared to attack.

“Dude, he’s going through a village,” the air ground controller radioed. “Dude Zero-5, at this time he is passing by several compounds.”

Dude acknowledged the transmission and was 15 seconds away from dropping.

“Dude, are you seeing this? All these compounds right next to him?” the controller asked.

Even as that question was coming out, Dude radioed “Abort, abort, abort.”

“Dude Zero-5, copy: abort, abort, abort,” the controller replied.

The U.S. personnel stopped the attack, even though it almost surely would have killed 10 to 15 enemy fighters, rather than possibly kill innocent people in the compounds.

The pilot and ground forces managed to keep tracking the vehicle and finally used a guided bomb to destroy it well clear of any houses, villages or compounds.

Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, addressed the issue of civilian casualties yesterday while speaking with reporters traveling with Gates.

“Any civilian casualty caused by NATO or American forces is inadvertent, McKiernan said. “It’s a tragic mistake. But the enemy we fight on purpose mixes in with the population.”

It is extremely difficult to avoid civilian casualties in any counterinsurgency campaign, he said. But the Taliban and other insurgent groups purposely puts civilians at risk.

“They purposely target civilians, and we see that with suicide bombers, with car bombs [and] with asymmetric attacks on population targets,” McKiernan said. “I draw a huge distinction between civilian casualties that are a result of [Operation Enduring Freedom] or ISAF actions and those caused by the insurgency.”

That said, though, the general reaffirmed that every effort is made to avoid civilian casualties.

“We have reviewed our procedures for the application of lethal force,” he said. “I’ve just revised a tactical directive that tries to be very measured in how we apply lethal force.”

Contact Author

Army Gen. David D. McKiernan

Related Sites:
Combined Joint Task Force 101
NATO International Security Assistance Force

Related Articles:
Gates Offers Personal Regrets for Afghan Civilian Casualties
Directive Aimed at Minimizing Civilian Casualties

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