WASHINGTON– The United States and NATO must do everything possible to prevent civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.

Gates said NATO defense ministers stressed this point during meetings in Brussels last week.

“It is clear that we need to do much more to overcome what I believe is one of our greatest strategic vulnerabilities,” Gates said during a Pentagon news conference. “The Afghan people must be reassured that U.S. and NATO forces are there as friends, partners and, along with Afghan security forces, they’re protectors as well.”

The report about a May 4 close-air support incident in Farah province, which killed Afghan civilians, will be released in the next day or two, Gates said. Any delay in releasing the report is due to giving interagency partners in the U.S. government the chance to become familiar with it, he said.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said the Joint Chiefs of Staff and combatant commanders discussed the Farah report earlier this week. “We’ve got to get right and get the lessons from it both understood and then embedded in our training and in our execution,” the Joint Chiefs chairman said.

But any solution cannot be limited to the United States. “Somewhere between 40 and 45 percent of the close-air-support missions that are flown are flown in support of our allies and partners,” Gates noted.

The report showed the incident involved “command-and-control challenges, chain-of-command challenges [and] some training issues that we’ve got to address,” Mullen said. The chain-of-command issue has challenged the coalition for a considerable period of time, he added.

Part of the solution is the intermediate headquarters that the NATO defense ministers tentatively approved last week. Army Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez is in line for that job if confirmed by the Senate and approved by NATO. The close-air-support issue is a driving point in establishing that headquarters, Gates said.

“I think one of the reasons that the allies so readily supported the creation of this intermediate headquarters was the recognition of the need for a tactical day-to-day commander who had purview over all of the regional command areas of Afghanistan to get at this chain-of-command issue,” he said.

The situation in Farah was complicated, Mullen said. At its heart was an hours-long firefight between Afghan security forces and the Taliban. American Marines aided the security forces and called in close-air support.

“It was very intense, and it was handled very well by the young captain on the ground, who … was in charge of it,” Mullen said.

Still, with all the concern over civilian casualties, there should be no doubt that the United States will do what is necessary to protect the troops, Gates said. “The question is, how do we carry out our operations in a way to minimize the need for the use of close air support?” he said.

“There have been suggestions that close-air support would be somehow in jeopardy in terms of using that capability,” Mullen said. “I just don’t see that. It’s got to be used very carefully, so it meets the standard that the secretary just described.”

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