WASHINGTON — A preliminary investigation of a U.S. airstrike in western Afghanistan this week found that it killed roughly 50 Afghans, U.S. military officials told McClatchy Friday.
"The majority are insurgents," said a U.S. military official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter. "Only a small portion are civilians."
Local officials said that as many as 120 people were killed, and the incident added to the friction between the U.S. and Afghan governments as Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with President Barack Obama in Washington this week.
"The air strikes are not acceptable," Karzai told CNN Friday. "This is something that we've raised in the Afghan government very clearly, that terrorism is not in the Afghan villages, not in Afghan homes. And you cannot defeat terrorists by airstrikes."
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Shortly after the strike, local residents said that the Taliban had killed three families with grenade attacks on their homes and paraded them through town, claiming that Americans had killed them.
U.S. officials haven't yet determined whether that attack happened, and on CNN Karzai dismissed the reports of a Taliban grenade attack and said the U.S. caused all the civilian deaths.
The widespread U.S. use of airstrikes in Afghanistan, and the resulting civilian casualties and property damage, have been among the issues that have strained relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan, and the strike on two remote villages in Farah province appears to have exacted the highest death toll of any U.S. air attack.
U.S. officials said they think that the toll in was so high because the Taliban forced villagers to stay in their homes during the strike.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was visiting Afghanistan Friday, acknowledged that the U.S. should do a better job of explaining the airstrikes to the Afghan people.
"Clearly we need to continue working on our strategic communications," Gates said. "What I think is most important is not necessarily what we say, but what the Afghan government says, because they are likely to have more credibility with their own people."
The seven-hour incident began on Sunday when Afghan police were patrolling a road and "fell into a deliberate, prepared ambush," said Col. Gregory Julian, a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan.
Some of the officers were killed, prompting the police to call in the Afghan Army. The Army then came under attack, and the provincial governor called in U.S. forces to help. The U.S. forces eventually called in air support, said Julian, and after the airstrike began, the Taliban moved into two remote villages separated by poppy fields "where heavy enemy fire came from," and the fight continued into the night.
The U.S. dropped 13 bombs "on select isolated buildings," Julian said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY