Read the executive summary of the CENTCOM report

Acknowledging that U.S. forces “did not adhere” to all the proper guidance, U.S. Central Command late Friday released a long-awaited report on a controversial May 4 U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan, and maintained that the civilian death toll was far lower than claimed by Afghan authorities and independent monitors.

Approximately 26 Afghan civilians were killed in the airstrike, according to CENTCOM.

Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission concluded that 97 civilians died in the attack, including 65 children and 21 women, while earlier Afghan government estimates rose as high as 140 civilian casualties.

The investigation “does not discount the possibility” that more than 26 Afghan civilians were killed in the airstrike.

“While this investigation assesses approximately 26 civilian casualties based on information from various sources and on new graves in the Gerani area in early May, no one will ever be able conclusively to determine the number of civilian casualties that occurred on May 4, 2009,” the report said.

At least 78 Taliban fighters were also killed in the airstrike, the report said.

On May 4, Afghan security forces were in a fight with the Taliban when Marines arrived as reinforcements.

In two airstrikes, a B-1B Lancer attacked buildings even though neither the aircrew nor the commander on the ground could tell whether any civilians in them, the report found.

While the airstrikes complied with the Law of Armed Conflict, they: “[d]id not adhere to all of the specific guidance in the Commander’s Intent contained in the controlling directive.

“Not applying all of that guidance likely resulted in civilian casualties,” the report said.

As a result of the incident, the Combined Air Forces Air Component Commander will review which type of missions each type of aircraft is suited for, according to the report.

U.S. and NATO forces should also conduct a review “of existing guidance that explains both the operational objective and tactical procedures” for using bombs and other “kinetic weapons” in situations that could lead to civilian casualties, the report said.

The report is “critical to virtually every man and woman in uniform” because it shows what tactic enemies will use in irregular conflicts, said Anthony Cordesman, an expert with the Center For Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“You’re going to see an ongoing effort to turn virtually any military event into civilian casualties, collateral damage, attacks on people who are innocent, detentions of people who are innocent; and you are going to see efforts to try to use air power or artillery – or any the other advantages we have in mobility and firepower – as abuses or war crimes or propaganda tools,” he said.

But the report’s credibility has been undercut by the fact that it has been so late in coming, Cordesman said.

“This particular case has festered for weeks, and almost anything we say at this point will be interpreted in the region as having reacted so slowly that we somehow manufactured the evidence,” he said.

See related story:Anatomy of an airstrike

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