Visiting Afghanistan today on an unannounced trip, Defense Secretary Robert Gates personally apologized to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the recent deaths of nine Afghan children during a helicopter strike targeting Taliban fighters.
Karzai accepted the apology though he had rejected a similar apology Sunday from NATO commander Gen. David Petraeus.
At a news conference in Kabul, Gates told Karzai, "I would also like to offer President Karzai my personal apology because I know these tragedies weigh heavily on his heart and create problems for him as the leader and protector of the Afghan people."
Gates acknowledged that civilian casualties also break his heart and that they are not only a tragedy for the families, but also a setback for the Afghan people.
The Taliban are responsible for over 80 percent of all civilian casualties in Afghanistan. But civilian casualties during U.S. and NATO military operations have often been seen negatively by the Afghan population, though the number of civilian deaths has been reduced in recent years.
Gates added, "It is ultimately our duty along with our Afghan partners, to protect the Afghan people – all of the Afghan people. And to do that we must continue building on the significant security gains achieved by Afghan coalition forces in the last year."
Karzai accepted Gates' apology saying, "I take this apology with respect and agree with it and accept it, and I will say that Secretary Gates from the tip of his heart apologized."
Though he accepted the apology, Karzai added, "With a lot of respect, I will request Secretary Gates to take the plea of the Afghan people to Washington that these civilian casualties stop, and make the utmost effort so we don't have them anymore."
The Afghan president said that while the NATO mission in Afghanistan is greatly appreciated, Afghans cannot understand how "we are victims in the war on terror." He added, "I find it increasingly difficult to explain to Afghan people that this can go on. "
Karzai said understands the difficulties in conducting military operations, but said the Afghan people "want it stopped, not reduced."
The mistaken civilian deaths in the remote eastern Kunar Province in Afghanistan have been a divisive issue between NATO and Afghan government officials since it occurred in late February.
Initial reports claimed that a group of 36 Taliban insurgents had been killed during a helicopter strike as they transited through the province. NATO's acknowledgement that there may have been some civilian deaths was quickly overshadowed by local Afghan government reports that 64 Afghan civilians had been killed in the incident.
After a further review, it was determined that the nine boys killed in the incident , aged 9 to 15, had been mistakenly targeted by an attack helicopter during the broader attack as they gathered firewood near their village.
Petraeus personally apologized to Karzai on Sunday admitting their targeting had been a mistake. In a statement, Karzai said he had rejected the apology.
During their meetings today, Gates said Karzai will soon announce the first areas of the country that will see the formal transition to Afghan security.
That transition will impact the Obama administration's plans to redistribute U.S. forces this July, with some of those forces withdrawing from Afghanistan.
Gates said that timetable was on track even though "no decisions on numbers have been made. " According to Gates, "in my view, we will be well-positioned to begin drawing down some U.S. and coalition forces this July, even as we deploy others to different areas of the country."