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Fewer Civilian Deaths Crucial in Afghanistan

The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan enters a critical phase this summer under a new commander whose goal will be to reduce the number of civilian casualties and restrict the ability of insurgents to attack freely, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in an interview.

"We can't keep killing Afghan civilians and hope to win," Adm. Michael Mullen said. "It's just not going to work."

Mullen met here with Russian officials about a U.S. proposal to base missile defenses in Europe, as well as the situation in Afghanistan.

"It's important to start to turn the tide in the next 12 to 18 months," Mullen told three reporters traveling with him this weekend. "That means not giving the Taliban the freedom of movement they've had for the last three years. They have gotten tougher, more violent, better at countering us." The Taliban had ruled Afghanistan until being ousted in 2001.

Mullen outlined the plan to reverse insurgent gains:

-- New leadership. Gen. Stanley McChrystal took command in Afghanistan earlier this month and is assessing whether the 68,000 U.S. troops that will be in place by midsummer will be enough. Defense Secretary Robert Gates stripped Gen. David McKiernan of his command in May because the war was at a stalemate. "I owe (troops) the best military leader I have and the best I can do to support him," Mullen said.

-- Limiting civilian casualties. U.S. and NATO forces, stretched thin across Afghanistan's vast, rugged terrain, often rely on airstrikes when ambushed. An airstrike on May 4 killed as many as 30 civilians.

Civilian deaths enrage Afghans and sap support for U.S. efforts there, said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"Killing non-combatant Afghans, even if unintentionally, and even if it enables the destruction of enemy forces, serves to undermine support for the government, and erodes efforts for the counterinsurgency forces to secure the war's center of gravity," he said.

U.S. troops must think what will happen "three and four steps ahead" before launching an attack or calling for an airstrike, Mullen said.

-- Dealing with makeshift bombs. Insurgents have increased their attacks on coalition forces with makeshift bombs. There were more than 400 attacks with improvised explosive devices in April, a record for the war. "We've put a bunch of engineering capability... to get at this IED threat," Mullen said. "We've added a whole lot in Afghanistan in the last six months or so. But there are still some shortfalls."

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