TAGAB VALLEY, Afghanistan – U.S. commanders on Tuesday traveled to a poor Afghan village and distributed $40,000 to relatives of 15 people killed in a U.S. raid, including a known militant commander. The Americans also apologized for any civilians killed in the operation.
The issue of civilian deaths is increasingly sensitive in Afghanistan, with President Hamid Karzai accusing the U.S. of killing civilians in three separate cases over the last month. Karzai has repeatedly warned the U.S. and NATO, saying such deaths undermine his government and the international mission.
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed Karzai's concerns, telling a Senate committee that "civilian casualties are doing us enormous harm in Afghanistan."
As U.S. commanders paid villagers near 15 newly dug graves, Karzai met Tuesday in the capital with relatives of some of those killed. He told the villagers he has given the U.S. and NATO one month to respond to a draft agreement calling for increased Afghan participation in military operations.
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Karzai said if he does not receive a response within that time, he would ask Afghans what he should do about international military operations. The statement from the presidential palace describing the meeting did not elaborate.
The U.S. is doubling its troop presence in Afghanistan this year to take on the Taliban militia; the Taliban and other militants now control wide swaths of territory. Last year, 151 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan, the most in any year since the U.S. invaded the Taliban-ruled country in late 2001 for sheltering Osama bin Laden.
Col. Greg Julian, the top U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan, led Tuesday's delegation into the village of Inzeri, a small collection of stone and mud homes set high in a steep, rocky valley. Insurgents have a strong presence in the region just 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Kabul.
A raid the night of Jan. 19 killed 15 people in Inzeri, including a targeted militant commander named Mullah Patang.
Afghan officials admit that Patang was killed, but villagers say civilians also died and have pressed their complaints with U.S. officials and Karzai.
The U.S. regularly makes payments to Afghan relatives of those killed in operations, but the payments are rarely publicized.
The villagers met the U.S. delegation about 100 yards from 15 newly dug graves. American officials asked for a list of the dead, but villagers said no one there was literate.
Julian told villagers that U.S. forces did not come Jan. 19 intending to fight, but opened fire after villagers fired on them. Many Afghan families are armed.
"Perhaps there may have been some people accidentally killed," Julian said as he looked at a mud-brick home where villagers said some Afghans died. "If there was collateral damage, I'm very sorry about that."
The village elder, a man named Asadullah who goes by one name, showed Julian a picture of men in Afghan army uniforms. Asadullah said they were the sons of the militant Patang.
On the back of an Afghan army truck, U.S. officials paid $40,000 in Afghan currency to representatives of the 15 people killed — $2,500 for each death plus $500 for two wounded men and $1,500 for village repairs.
Lt. Col. Steven Weir, a military lawyer who helped oversee the payments, said the payments were not an admission by the U.S. that innocents were killed.
"It's a condolence payment," he said. "The villagers said none of them were in the Taliban, just peaceful individuals from the village. So by this payment they will understand it's not our goal to kill innocent people. This may help them understand we're here to build a safer and more secure Afghanistan."
When asked if the U.S. was paying money to relatives of people that the U.S. had wanted to kill or capture, Weir said: "If we did accidentally shoot someone, we want to make that right, and if we have to pay money to someone who didn't deserve it ... it's kind of like it's better to let nine guilty people go free than to jail one innocent person."
Villagers seemed appreciative. Gul Akbar, 24, who said his father died in the raid, told Julian he respected and appreciated his visit.
"I'm just very sad someone gave the other soldiers the wrong information," he said.
Abdul Hadi Wairi, a counterterrorism official in Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, said he believes there were militants in the village but that some noncombatants also died.
"There were some civilians killed as collateral damage, and there were some old people killed, too," he said. "There were militants among them. But it was a village, it was dark. The insurgents are trying to stay in populated areas and use the villagers as a human shield."
Ghulam Qawis Abubaker, the governor of Kapisa province who was part of the delegation that met with Karzai, said Patang, the targeted militant, was among the dead. Abubaker said Patang and other villagers had weapons.
The issue of civilian casualties appears to be putting a severe strain on the U.S.-Afghan relationship.
But Weir said the U.S. couldn't just stop targeted raids on leaders of militant cells.
"When you stop these operations, the bad guys get more IEDs (bombs) in place, they bring in more foreign fighters, they destroy the bridges we build," he said. "It just goes on and on."
Julian on Wednesday planned to meet with elders from neighboring Laghman province.
Karzai said 17 civilians were killed in a Laghman raid on Jan. 7; the U.S. has said it killed 32 militants in that operation. The Afghan president also says U.S. forces killed 16 civilians during a raid in Laghman on Saturday.
Gates said that despite the obstacles, U.S. forces must strive to avoid civilian deaths.
"I believe that the civilian casualties are doing us enormous harm in Afghanistan, and we have got to do better in terms of avoiding casualties, and I say that knowing full well that the Taliban mingle among the people, use them as barriers," the U.S. defense secretary told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"My worry is that the Afghans come to see us as part of their problem rather than part of their solution, and then we are lost."