KABUL (Reuters) - After years of alienating Afghans by being slow to acknowledge killing civilians, U.S. troops are trying a new tactic: say sorry fast.
Commanders acknowledge that soaring civilian death tolls from U.S. and NATO strikes over the past year have cost them the vital support of ordinary Afghans — and a perception that they were reluctant to take responsibility made the situation worse.
In an effort to blunt the damage, they have put in place new drills in recent months — responding more quickly, coordinating their investigations with Afghan authorities, apologizing publicly and offering compensation.
But with civilian casualties still mounting as fighting increases, it remains to be seen whether the new approach will blunt the fury of an Afghan public wary of foreign troops.
“We have worked very hard at this to ensure that we can get to get to the truth of what has taken place as quickly as possible and maintain the support of the population,” Colonel Gregory Julian, spokesman for the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan General David McKiernan, said.
“The population are the center of gravity.”
He confirmed that the procedure for dealing with reports of civilian casualties has been overhauled since late last year.
Instead of waiting for commanders back in Kabul to dispatch an investigative team, units in the field are now expected to liaise immediately with Afghan officials to conduct a joint investigation. Commanders then reach out to local leaders to help negotiate compensation for the victims.
U.S. forces put that effort on display twice in the past week. In Khost province they killed a family of five including an infant. In Kunar province, they killed six civilians in a helicopter strike.
In both cases, they initially said they had targeted militants. But within days they had confessed to killing civilians and issued public apologies.
“Clearly there has been a shift recently and we’re hopeful that it’s going to continue,” said Marc Garlasco, senior analyst at New York-based Human Rights Watch, which has repeatedly criticized the military over the issue. “We’re happy that they’re taking it as seriously as they are.”
The changes were largely prompted by an incident last August that brought the reputation of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to perhaps the lowest point of the entire seven-year war.
U.S. forces killed dozens of civilians in a strike near the Western city of Herat. Then, they denied it.
Demonstrators took to the streets. Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai warned the foreign forces they were in danger of losing any public acceptance.
Pictures emerged showing bodies of women and children. Finally, three months after the incident, the Americans at last confessed that they had killed at least 33 civilians, as well as 22 other people they said were fighters.
Julian, McKiernan’s spokesman, said that August incident had led to “informational fratricide” between U.S. forces and their Afghan allies, with sharply varying accounts of the incident stoking the flames of anti-American sentiment.
Karin von Hippel, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said commanders were aware civilian deaths had cost them much needed support.
“It sets back all the other work they’re trying to do in the larger counterinsurgency operation,” she said.
She said the military’s recent learning curve on responding to civilian casualties had actually been “pretty fantastic” but it was not clear if its new attitude would be enough to win back Afghans angered by earlier incidents.
Afghans themselves remain skeptical.
“Apologies are good things. But the foreign troops should convince the people that there will be no more such incidents,” said Maolawi Hezatullah, provincial council head in Kunar, where U.S. troops killed six civilians this week.
“If such incidents continue to occur, there is no point for apologies.”
Additional reporting by Andrew Gray in Washington and Rohullah Anwari in Asadabad, Afghanistan; Editing by Valerie Lee