WASHINGTON -- American troops made substantial errors and did not strictly follow rules for avoiding casualties during an air assault on Taliban fighters last month, a U.S. defense official said, underscoring a central quandary for President Barack Obama's new Afghan counterinsurgency campaign.
The defense official said Wednesday that a military investigation faulted some of the actions of American troops in air strikes May 4 that killed dozens of Afghan civilians in Farah province.
"Errors were made" in the attack, the official acknowledged on condition of anonymity, discussing one of the preliminary findings on an incident that has strained relations between Washington and Kabul and bred deep resentment among the Afghan people. Civilian deaths in Afghanistan have also enraged Muslims worldwide.
Though the probe looked into the events in early May, commanders for well over a year have focused considerable attention on the problem. It looms as large as ever as the Obama administration streams 21,000 troops into Afghanistan to try to regain momentum in the faltering war.
The new U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan was asked about the issue at a news conference on his first day Wednesday, when he only took two questions. Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, responded that he planned to use close air support for troops only when needed to protect them and to complete the mission. And he said air strikes would be used carefully.
The nominee for top commander in Afghanistan was asked about it at his confirmation hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill. Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal told senators: "This is a critical point. It may be the critical point. This is a struggle for the support of the Afghan people."
A report Wednesday by analysts at the think tank Center for a New American Security said that in order to turn around the Afghanistan/Pakistan problem, the United States must "rapidly triage" its priorities. "Protecting the population must take precedence over all other considerations," the report said.
McChrystal said that if confirmed, he will review all existing rules of engagement and all tactical directives. But American military commanders on a number of occasions already have reviewed and rewritten the rules -- including those on bombing missions and on how special forces operate -- in an effort to avoid Afghan casualties.
Rules tightened in a review last year may not have been followed by troops on May 4, said the official who spoke about the investigation.
One example cited by the investigators, the official said, involved a U.S. warplane that got permission to launch an attack against a suspected Taliban site. For some reason, the plane circled back and didn't reconfirm the target before dropping the bomb. The official said that left the possibility that civilians had entered the area or that the Taliban had left in the interim.
Officials have insisted they go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.
Maj. Gen. William Rew, the Air Force's director of operational planning, policy and strategy, said during a meeting with reporters earlier this year that "thousands" of attacks have been called off at the last minute when live video feeds from unmanned aerial vehicles showed civilians in the area of a planned strike.
Afghans say 140 civilians died on May 4, while American commanders say video evidence recorded by fighter jets and the account of the ground commander suggest no more than 30 civilians were killed, as well as 60 to 65 Taliban.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said a team that it sent to the area saw "dozens of bodies in each of the two locations," including women and children.
In Geneva, U.N. human rights investigator Philip Alston said Wednesday that about two-thirds of those killed appeared to be civilians, citing studies by the United Nations, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and other monitors. He said he expected more information to come out in the coming days, and said U.S. reports "have become more and more detailed."
Said Alston: "The most important point is simply that there's no disagreement that a very significant number of civilians were killed."
According to the U.S. military, the battle in Farah began a day after Taliban fighters entered two villages, demanded money from civilians and killed three former government employees. An Afghan force rushed in, only to be ambushed by as many as 300 insurgents.
The provincial governor asked for U.S. military help, and American ground troops joined the battle, the U.S. says.
Before the battle was over, troops called in F-18 fighter jet airstrikes as well as help from a B-1 bomber, coordinating with the ground commander to strike a half-dozen targets including buildings and a tree grove insurgents were firing from or massing in, the U.S. has said.