Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Commander of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) (Image by Flickr user isafmedia (CC: by-nc-sa))

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Story by Matthew Bell, PRI's "The World"

The Afghan government has condemned a NATO air strike over the weekend that killed at least 27 Afghan civilians. NATO said it fired on what was believed to be a group of insurgents about to attack its troops. The air strike was not part of the current offensive in southern Afghanistan, but US military commanders have said again and again, that protecting Afghan civilians is a top priority, and that incidents like the air strike yesterday undermined the overall mission.

The statement from the Afghan Cabinet said Sunday's airstrike killed 4 women and a child, and wounded another 12 people.

Interior Ministry spokesman Zamari Bashari was asked how he could be sure that those killed were civilians, given the Taliban's practice of blending in with the local population. Bashari said the police and other sources in the district supplied the information.

"They say that when they got to the area, they had found women, children and adults, and they have not seen evidence of weapons and ammunitions," he said. "Children and women could not be insurgents."

Bashari went on to say that international forces also acknowledged that what occurred on Sunday morning was a tragedy.

US General Stanley McChrystal said in a statement, "We are extremely saddened by the tragic loss of innocent lives." 

McChrystal said US and NATO forces, also known as ISAF, are in Afghanistan to protect the Afghan people and inadvertently killing or injuring civilians undermines their trust and confidence in the mission. 

ISAF spokesman, Eric Tremblay, says McChrystal takes this issue very seriously. That's why he changed the rules of engagement last year to limit civilian deaths and injuries, and that's why he keeps talking about it to the media and to his troops.

"I think it's one of those things, in a very complex theater," said Tremblay, "where you need to constantly beat the drum and inform and educate, and bring to bear the importance of building that trust and confidence, and therefore needing to minimize as much as possible, civilian casualties."

As tragic as the results of Sunday's airstrike seem to be, Sarah Holewinski says the U.S. military is doing a better job on this. Holewinski is with the Washington-based Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict.

According to Holewinski, accounts from the US led offensive going on right now in Marja, in Southern Afghanistan, attest to that:

"Soldiers on the ground are telling us, 'look, we're restricting our air power. We're going in on foot. We are shooting only when we know that that other combatant is carrying a gun. So we're trying to distinguish as clearly as possible between civilians and combatants.'

"And then when an incident actually does happen, they are very quick to do an investigation, and then pay compensation."

That's something her group hasn't seen in past years, says Holewinski. She adds that the changes came last summer, when General McChrystal issued his new directive on using force and since then, civilian deaths by international forces have dropped by about 30 percent. 

Military historian Andrew Bacevich, of Boston University, is a critic of escalating US involvement in Afghanistan, but he says there's little doubt that US commanders, to their credit, no longer simply view success as killing the enemy.

"Rather than fighting battles, they declared their purpose to be one of securing the people, and then delivering a package of goods and services ... under the rubric of good governance," said Bacevich.

Last Saturday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai drew attention to the issue of civilian casualties during a speech to the Parliament. Karzai did give credit to NATO forces for doing their best, but he also held up a photo of a young Afghan girl from Marja said to have lost 12 family members in an errant rocket attack. Karzai said Allied forces fighting the Taliban must redouble their efforts to avoid killing Afghan civilians.

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