Gates apologizes for Afghan deaths

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday expressed “sincere condolences and personal regrets” for the recent deaths of Afghan civilians as a result of American and allied air strikes that have brought widespread condemnation.

The U.S.-led coalition, meanwhile, announced that four of its soldiers and one Afghan national were killed by a roadside bomb Wednesday in the east of the country.

The statement did not identify the nationalities of the soldiers or say precisely where the incident occurred. Most of the troops in eastern Afghanistan are Americans.

The toll Wednesday was the highest in a single attack for several weeks in a mounting campaign by resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida militants. About 194 foreign soldiers have been killed this year, the highest number since the U.S.-led invasion in October 2001.

After meeting here with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Gates pledged that American and NATO forces would do more to prevent the loss of innocent lives.

“While no military has ever done more to prevent civilian casualties, it is clear that we have to work even harder,” Gates said.

The U.S. military has been widely criticized for a recent incident in which more than 90 civilians may have been killed.

During a press conference at the U.S. Embassy, Gates promised the people of Afghanistan that “we will do everything in our power to find new and better ways” to target what he described as the “common enemies of the United States and Afghanistan.”

“Our interests are the same as yours: an Afghanistan where all citizens can strive for a better and brighter future without fear of violence and terrorism,” he said.

On his fourth visit to Afghanistan as defense secretary, Gates endorsed calls by the senior U.S. commander, Gen. David McKiernan, for three more combat brigades, in addition to the extra battalion and extra brigade that President Bush has ordered deployed by early next year.

But Gates did not say whether the anticipated increases would come from the U.S. military or whether allies would be pressed to fill the shortfall in troops identified by McKiernan.