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Jim Garamone - American Forces Press Service
KABUL, March 31, 2010 - The coalition record on civilian casualties has improved significantly as a new strategy has gone into place in Afghanistan, but American leaders continue to hammer home how important it is to avoid killing civilians.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited with troops serving on the front lines of the war in Regional Command South. Marines in Marja – the site of the recent offensive in Helmand province – asked him about the rules of engagement. Troops in other venues ask him about the furor over civilian casualties.
One Marine yesterday wondered why the Americans – who try desperately not to kill civilians – are pilloried when an accident occurs, yet the Taliban seems to kill fellow Afghans with impunity.
"The question that surrounds civilian casualties ... takes me immediately to the lack of depth and breadth of understanding that we had ... about the severity of the outcome and the impact it has," Mullen said to reporters traveling with him. "We just can't win it if we keep killing the locals."
The enemy uses any accidental civilian death against American or coalition forces. Mullen said Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in the country, shared with him the results of a study showing what happens in an area when civilian casualties occur.
"When we cause them, they generate a serious uptick in violence for up to five months," he said. "When the Taliban causes them, they generate an uptick in violence for about three months."
Coalition leaders know that civilian casualties have a huge impact on the overall strategy, Mullen said, and the study McChrystal commissioned proves that. "We know that the Taliban use that against us, and we are working hard to both denounce that and take that away, but they are very good and agile in attacking us," he said.
Coalition forces have to get to the point where they are not causing civilian casualties at all, he added, and when the local people know only the Taliban are causing civilian deaths, and it will start to work against the enemy. "We're not there yet," he said.