WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. air strikes killed roughly 26 civilians during a battle in western Afghanistan in early May, the U.S. military said on Friday in a report that calculated a far lower death toll than other estimates.
The U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Afghanistan, said a higher civilian death toll was possible and vowed to change its tactics to reduce civilian deaths.
But it said the air strikes were an “appropriate means to destroy the enemy threat” as it battled Taliban forces in Farah Province on May 4.
The air strikes fueled public anger against Western forces in Afghanistan and have heightened tensions between Kabul and Washington as the United States embarks on a massive troop surge in a bid to quell the growing Taliban insurgency.
“It is inconsistent with the U.S. government’s objective of providing security for the Afghan people to conduct operations that result in their death or wounding, if at all avoidable,” said the report, an unclassified summary of the investigation into the incident.
The killings occurred when U.S. aircraft were called in to bomb Taliban forces that were fighting U.S. and Afghan ground troops near the villages of Geraani and Ganj Abad.
The civilian deaths likely came during two B-1 bomber strikes that destroyed buildings where Taliban were believed to be hiding, the report said.
Ground troops and the bomber crew could not determine if civilians were also in the buildings, the report said.
Another bomber strike that destroyed a mosque used by the Taliban probably killed no civilians, the report said.
The Afghan government estimates that the air strikes killed 140 civilians, which would make the military action the deadliest for Afghan civilians since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has urged an end to U.S. air strikes in the country, a call rejected by Washington.
Central Command said it reached its estimate of 26 deaths after interviewing villagers, local officials, aid group workers and U.S. forces involved in the battle, as well as looking at new graves in the area.
At least 76 Taliban fighters and five Afghan National Police were killed in the battle, the report said.
Those totals are roughly in line with the military’s initial estimate of 20 to 35 civilians out of a total of 80 to 95 killed in the incident.
But Central Command said an estimate of 86 civilian casualties by the Afghan Human Rights Commission was “balanced” and said the true death toll will probably never be known.
“This investigation does not discount the possibility that more than 26 civilians were killed in this engagement,” the report said.
Obama administration officials had debated whether to release an unclassified summary of the investigation.
Top military commanders said the report’s release could show American accountability on civilian casualties, while the State Department feared it would only underscore U.S. mistakes, according to administration officials.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham