Commander says the mission is important to bring about peace and avert civilian casualties.
US Navy reinforces presence in Afghanistan
ON BOARD OF THE USS RONALD REAGAN, GULF OF OMAN // The US military has begun reinforcing its presence in Afghanistan weeks ahead of an expected troop build-up amid reassurances that efforts to avoid civilian casualties will be redoubled. This month, George W Bush, the US president, said he would be sending an additional 4,500 soldiers to Afghanistan while pulling 8,000 US troops from Iraq as a result of the security gains there.
All the while the US Navy has been increasing its efforts to support the coalition troops operating in Afghanistan. On Aug 28, the largest and newest of the US Navy aircraft carrier armada, the USS Ronald Reagan, assumed command from the USS Abraham Lincoln in international waters in the Gulf of Oman, just a couple of hours flight from Afghanistan, and immediately launched its first sorties to assist the coalition troops on the ground.
According to Capt Thomas P Lalor, 46, the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Air Wing 14 Commander, they fly two dozen sorties each day. "The focus of our mission here is to support the ground troops of the International Security Assistance Force [Isaf] in Afghanistan through reconnaissance and close air support when needed," said the commander on board the carrier, hours before he took part in a night flight mission over Afghanistan.
Capt Lalor said avoiding civilian casualties when raiding suspected militant strongholds topped the priorities of these missions, revealing that in every engagement where the insurgents used civilians as shields the pilots refrained from dropping the bombs and soldiers on the ground held fire to avoid killing non-combatants. This month, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama) said 1,445 Afghan civilians had been killed in the first eight months of 2008, a 39 per cent increase over the same period last year.
The Unama report said 800 of these deaths were caused by the Taliban and other insurgent forces, while 577 deaths were caused by US, Nato and Afghan government forces, of which 395 deaths were caused by air strikes. An additional 68 civilians were killed in crossfire or other incidents in which responsibility could not be clearly attributed, according to the report. Capt Lalor said every effort was being made to ensure that civilians are not harmed during raids targeting militant strongholds.
"All of our pilots are very well trained and they are getting the best equipment and technology that is available out there in the world, including the most accurate weapons and sensors," he said. Pilots are in constant contact with ground forces that have "eyes" on the target before firing, to ensure accuracy, he said. "Even once we agree on where the bombs go, if there is indication of any buildings or population around that target, we will start asking the hard questions of the forces on the ground to confirm that no civilians are within that target or nearby structures that could be affected," Capt Lalor said.
"I've told all the pilots that there has to be absolutely no doubt in their mind where the bomb is going to go and that it's going to the right place before they clear the release. I much rather have them bring back the bomb then put it somewhere it doesn't belong". The 23-year veteran of the Navy with an accumulated 3,700 flight hours said the pilots were mostly fathers and husbands, so they understood the importance of not hitting innocent civilians.