WASHINGTON - Defense Department officials are debating whether to ignore an earlier promise and squelch the release of an investigation into a U.S. airstrike last month, out of fear that its findings would further enrage the Afghan public, Pentagon officials told McClatchy Monday.
The military promised to release the report shortly after the May 4 air attack, which killed dozens of Afghans, and the Pentagon reiterated that last week. U.S. officials also said they'd release a video that military officials said shows Taliban fighters attacking Afghan and U.S. forces and then running into a building. Shortly afterward, a U.S. aircraft dropped a bomb that destroyed the building.
However, a senior defense official told McClatchy Monday: "The decision (about what to release) is now in limbo."
Pentagon leaders are divided about whether releasing the report would reflect a renewed push for openness and transparency about civilian casualties or whether it would only fan Afghan outrage and become a Taliban recruiting tool just as Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal takes command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Two U.S. military officials told McClatchy that the video shows that no one checked to see whether any women or children were in the building before it was bombed. The report acknowledges that mistakes were made and that U.S. forces didn't always follow proper procedures, but it does little to reassure Afghans that the U.S. has done enough to avoid repeating those mistakes.
During his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month, McChrystal promised to review U.S tactics and what more could be done to minimize civilian casualties.
The chief investigator has briefed Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the report, and other top defense officials, including Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are reviewing an unclassified version of it for possible release.
The airstrike, in western Farah province, has drawn the ire of local and national leaders angered that U.S. forces may have killed as many as 140 civilians in pursuit of a band of Taliban fighters. Shortly after the attack, U.S. military officials told McClatchy that they thought the death toll had been roughly 50, some of them militants.
The U.S. use of airstrikes in Afghanistan, and the resulting civilian casualties and property damage, have strained relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan and become an issue in Afghanistan's August elections.
"The airstrikes are not acceptable," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said during his May visit to the U.S. "This is something that we've raised in the Afghan government very clearly, that terrorism is not in the Afghan villages, not in Afghan homes. And you cannot defeat terrorists by airstrikes."
Lacking sufficient forces to patrol the vast Afghan countryside, the U.S. has relied heavily on airstrikes. The seven-hour incident on May 4 began when Afghan police were ambushed while they were patrolling a road. Some officers were killed, prompting the police to call in the Afghan army. The army then came under attack, too, and the provincial governor called in U.S. forces.
The U.S. forces eventually called in air support, military officials said, and after the airstrike began, the Taliban moved into two remote villages separated by poppy fields that were a source of heavy enemy fire, and the fight continued into the night.
The U.S. dropped 13 bombs on some buildings, military officials in Afghanistan have said.
The report found that an Air Force B-1 bomber had to circle overhead before dropping a 2,000-pound bomb on a site where suspected Taliban fighters had fled. While it was circling, civilians could've entered the building or Taliban could've left, but the military had no one in a position to observe that.
"There's no way to determine whether or not that had anything to do with the fact that civilian casualties did occur in this incident, but they did note that as one of the problems associated with how this all took place," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said last week.