WASHINGTON — A U.S. military review of an airstrike last week in western Afghanistan found that only five civilians were killed, Pentagon officials said Thursday — a finding that starkly contradicts with U.N. and Afghan reports that at least 90 civilians were killed in the bombing.
The completed review corroborates an initial assessment by the military of the operation last Friday by U.S. and Afghan forces in Herat province. The review determined that 25 militants, including a Taliban commander, were killed, along with five civilians, the officials said.
"We did not kill up to 90 civilians as has been alleged," one U.S. military official said. The review "comports with our operational understanding" of the events, said the official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to the Associated Press and Washington Post because they were not authorized to speak.
The U.S. government is pressing for a joint U.S.-Afghan inquiry in hopes of reaching a common conclusion.
Evidence has been scant, with no conclusive photos or video emerging to shed light on what happened in Azizabad on Aug. 22. The claim of high civilian casualties, also made by Afghan officials, is causing new friction between President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers.
Claims of civilian deaths can be tricky. Relatives of Afghan victims are given condolence payments by Karzai's government and the U.S. military, providing an incentive to make false claims.
According to three Afghan officials, U.S. commanders were misled into striking the village. Afghan officials said the raid was aimed at militants who were supposed to be in the village, but the officials said the operation was based on faulty information provided by a rival of a tribal leader.
A top NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. and Afghan troops were fired on first when they moved into the village before dawn.
The airstrike, which the U.S. military said took place after insurgents ambushed Afghan army commandos and coalition troops during a raid, came as U.S. and NATO forces escalated their reliance on airpower to combat an intensifying Taliban insurgency, in part because of a shortage of ground forces in Afghanistan.
The mistaken killing of civilians in airstrikes has long been a sore point between the U.S. military and Karzai, who has in the past demanded a temporary halt to airstrikes and other military operations in certain regions. Tensions over the issue have flared anew with the latest charges.
Senior U.S. military leaders have in recent days repeatedly voiced doubt about the credibility of reports that scores of Afghan civilians died in the airstrike.
"I've seen the account stated from both the U.N. and certainly from the Afghan government. I've also seen it … discussed that, in fact, that didn't happen," Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday. Mullen said he had not seen the results of the review ordered by Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, who commands U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan as well as U.S. special operations forces that operate in Afghanistan with Afghan army commandos.
The use of airstrikes in Afghanistan increased tenfold from 2004 to 2007 as a result of a growing insurgency and a lack of adequate ground forces, according to Anthony Cordesman, a senior military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Nevertheless, Cordesman also found that in many instances aircraft make sorties without dropping major munitions, suggesting that the military is using considerable restraint in targeting.