U.S. to limit airstrikes in Afghanistan to help reduce civilian deaths

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The new U.S. military commander in Afghanistan will limit the use of airstrikes in order to help cut down on civilian casualties, his chief spokesman said Monday.

In a “tactical directive” to be issued in coming days, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has ordered new operational standards, including refraining from firing on structures where insurgents may have taken refuge among civilians unless Western or allied troops are in imminent danger, said spokesman Navy Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith.

Also under revision are ground search and seizure practices and the treatment of detainees, changes officials hope will reduce tensions between U.S. forces and Afghan citizens, and build a “civilian surge” to improve reconstruction and governance.


The directive is described as the most stringent effort yet to protect the lives of Afghan civilians, which McChrystal has identified as the crucial task of NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

“We can easily destroy the enemy,” Smith said. “But if we do not know precisely who is in that structure, we need to take measures to avoid loss of innocent life -- step back or put up a cordon, or other measures.”

McChrystal, who took command here June 15, has briefed top commanders on the directive over the last several days. In a departure from past practices, a summary of the classified document will be released, according to a member of McChrystal’s staff.

McChrystal has spoken of the need to improve relations with ordinary Afghans in order to persuade them not to support the Taliban. He also wants to speed up and sharpen the military’s message in so-called information operations.

Repeated instances of civilian deaths from airstrikes, coupled with resentment from Afghans whose homes have been searched in ground operations that often result in detentions, have undermined counterinsurgency efforts here for years.

Airstrikes accounted for 64% of the 828 civilians killed last year by U.S. or Afghan government forces, according to a recent United Nations report. The Taliban and other insurgents were responsible for an additional 1,160 civilians deaths.


Asked whether the directive will encourage insurgents to take cover behind civilians, Smith replied:

“They already are. Their tactic is to get us to escalate the fight inside villages. They use structures where villagers live to fire on us. The key is, we’ve got to find a way to separate the enemy from the people.”

The directive orders commanders to be more judicious when calling in airstrikes. The goal is to restrict close air support to situations in which U.S. or North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces, or Afghan army or police units, are in imminent danger of being overrun.

Smith said that McChrystal “made it very clear that if our troops find themselves in a situation where they are receiving fire from a location, if their lives are in danger, they’ll have to address the problem as best they can, either with ground forces or close air support.”

He added: “If it’s a situation where clearly [hostile] individuals are in a structure or move into a structure . . . where you do not know precisely whether or not civilians are . . . in those structures and you can move away safely, you should do so.”

Those principles also apply to search and seizure operations, as well as the use of firepower to protect convoys passing through populated areas, said the general’s staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The intent is to use proportional force.


Current rules of engagement require a gradual escalation of force before an airstrike is authorized. For instance, pilots are instructed to make low passes or fire nonlethal marking rockets to try to force insurgents to break contact with friendly units. The new directive does not change those rules of engagement, but it emphasizes the need to avoid the use of force except to save the lives of friendly forces.

“If we have to let the bad guys go and fight another day, that’s what we’ll do,” the staff member said.

The directive also orders commanders to use multiple intelligence sources to ensure that all structures -- homes, farm buildings, schools -- in a target area are clear of civilians before launching airstrikes.

At the same time, the staff member said, the directive does not mean that use of air power will be sharply reduced -- only that the emphasis is on protecting civilians rather than killing insurgents.

In his confirmation hearings, McChrystal said the measure of success in Afghanistan should be the number of civilians “shielded from violence,” not the number of militants killed.

McChrystal’s predecessor, Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, issued orders late last year requiring commanders to “minimize the need to resort to deadly force.” McChrystal’s directive appears to be more emphatic and specific.


McChrystal is near the end of an eight- to 10-day “listening tour” of Afghanistan, during which he has been visiting U.S. and NATO troops, Afghan army and police commanders and Afghan government officials.

McChrystal has been authorized to bring in his own team of senior military aides, who are being assigned to take charge of areas he has designated as critical. Many, like McChrystal, have backgrounds in the shadowy world of special operations.

Military commanders here often point out that insurgents routinely target civilians. The latest such instance came Monday in the eastern city of Khowst, where a suicide bomber killed at least seven civilians and injured 31, according to the Interior Ministry.

The assailant apparently set off an initial blast using an explosive device attached to a motorbike, then detonated explosives strapped to his body, provincial officials said.