KUNDUZ, Afghanistan – The top NATO commander confirmed Saturday that civilians were wounded by a devastating airstrike targeting insurgents in northern Afghanistan, a major test of his policy to curb airpower to reduce civilian casualties and win over Afghans to the war against the Taliban.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal waded through a knee-deep river to inspect the charred remains of two fuel tankers destroyed in the Friday attack, which Afghan officials say killed about 70 people. It was unclear how many were Taliban and how many were villagers who rushed to the scene to siphon fuel from the stolen trucks.
McChrystal visited the site about 100 miles north of Kabul as European leaders already nervous about the escalating war demanded answers. Some called the airstrike – requested by the Germans and carried out by U.S. jets – “a tragedy” and “a big mistake” that must be investigated.
The bombing also sent shock waves through Germany ahead of national elections Sept. 27. Opposition politicians called for a thorough investigation, even as the defense minister insisted all the dead were militants.
“Anytime anybody is hurt it is something that gives pause to everybody, particularly when they’re young people, still children. And so you take it very seriously,” McChrystal said. “So I take this entire effort as something that is a responsibility of our command, and a responsibility of mine, to try to protect Afghans.”
Civilian casualties have dogged the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. When McChrystal took command in June, he immediately issued orders aimed at reducing such deaths, and asked his troops to concentrate on protecting and understanding Afghan villagers.
The new approach appeared to help, but Friday’s bombing threatened a major setback to McChrystal’s goals.
“From what I have seen today and going to the hospital, it’s clear to me that there were some civilians that were harmed at the site,” McChrystal told reporters. He did not say if any civilians were killed.
“I think it’s a serious event that is going to be a test of whether we are willing to be transparent and whether we are willing to show that we are here to protect the Afghan people,” McChrystal added. “And I think that it’s very important to me that we follow through on that.”
German officials have insisted all those killed in the attack were militants. Other NATO officials, though, have conceded that civilians likely died as well.
“There is no reliable information on numbers, but there’s a good sort of a gut sense that there had to have been civilians that made their way just based on the anecdotal conversations we’ve been hearing,” said U.S. Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, McChrystal’s top spokesman.