U.S. official gets hostile Afghan reception

Deputy defense secretary questioned about deaths

July 16, 2002|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

KABUL, Afghanistan - U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz came to Afghanistan yesterday to try to discourage mounting factionalism among warlords and foster the development of a national army, but instead he found himself responding to sharp criticism of a recent U.S. raid that killed dozens of civilians.

The June 30 raid on several remote villages in Oruzgan province killed 48 people, mostly women and children, and injured 117 more, according to figures compiled by Afghan officials. The raid has drawn angry protests from the Afghan government and seems to have precipitated a number of attacks on U.S. soldiers.

While acknowledging that civilians were killed, Wolfowitz oscillated between a defense of the raid, which he made when speaking at a U.S. air base in the morning, and more nuanced comments, made later in Kabul, the capital.

"We are always concerned when we believe we may have killed innocent people, and we think that happened and we regret that," he said at Bagram Air Base. But, he added, "We have no regrets about going in after bad guys, and there were some there."

At a news conference at the presidential palace with Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah, Wolfowitz suggested the military would try to make some changes demanded by Afghan authorities.

"It is very important to us to work with Afghan authorities on both a local and national level to make sure our operations are coordinated and they proceed in a way that contributes to the long-term stability of this country," he said. "When we have made a mistake or think we may have made a mistake, as in Oruzgan, we will try to track down as thoroughly as we can the causes of it to try and prevent it."

At a news briefing yesterday, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said there were allied Afghan forces on the ground during the Oruzgan raid operating with U.S. troops, but she said she had no details who they were or to whom they reported.

Wolfowitz offered no specifics on how the United States might alter its approach to avoid such errors and said that even with added vigilance, there are no guarantees that such a tragedy would never happen again.

Wolfowitz's visit comes at a critical moment in the new Afghan government's effort to exert its influence over the unsteady country. Many areas of the country remain under the influence of regional warlords, and because there is no national army, the government of President Hamid Karzai has no way to enforce its policies.

U.S. officials believe the answer is to create a multiethnic army that would be loyal to the central government.

But initial efforts to train such a force have been fraught with difficulty. Members of different ethnic groups are sometimes wary of working together and taking orders from one another.

Furthermore, unless regional warlords disband their militias and support the national army, it will have little clout in areas where warlords' forces remain active.

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