The new American commander of Western forces in Afghanistan has issued a directive asserting troops’ right to defend themselves, but also calling on them to continue efforts to safeguard Afghan civilian lives, military officials said Wednesday.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus’ tactical directive, his first since assuming command last month, appears aimed at countering some grumbling within the ranks that Western forces’ hands are tied in confrontations with insurgents because of battlefield rules handed down last year by his predecessor, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.
It is a delicate balance to strike, because civilian casualties are one of the most inflammatory issues between North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The proportion of civilian deaths attributed to Western troops has declined significantly since last summer’s directive from McChrystal. In a departure from previous practice, he ordered that airstrikes and artillery not be used if civilians might be present, unless troops are in imminent danger of being overrun.
Petraeus’ directive, which supersedes McChrystal’s, is classified, but parts of it were made public Wednesday.
U.S. military officials speaking on condition of anonymity said the new version includes some refinements to guidelines on use of aerial bombardment and artillery fire, and spells out more instances in which such methods should not be used.
However, the directive is also meant to address what those officials described as a “misperception” among some junior field commanders that airstrikes and artillery — two of the international forces’ main battlefield advantages against the insurgents — were all but forbidden.
“We believe the most pertinent issue in play is uneven application of the [previous] tactical directive,” said Lt. Col. John Dorrian, the operations spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. The new guidelines, he said, are “intended to ensure that everyone is on the same page.”
In the unclassified portion of the directive, Petraeus says that “every Afghan civilian death diminishes our cause.” But he says the directive “does not prevent commanders from protecting the lives of their men and women” and included an admonition to subordinates not to put further restrictions on use of force without his explicit approval.
Petraeus was a driving force behind McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy, which holds that winning the war is impossible without also winning over the populace. Petraeus this week issued what he said would be the first of a series of counterinsurgency guidelines telling troops to be friendly and respectful in their dealings with civilians.
Karzai had publicly praised the measures taken by McChrystal to reduce deaths and injuries of noncombatants, and expressed hope that Petraeus would keep them in place. The new directive did not appear to set off any alarm bells; presidential spokesman Waheed Omar said Karzai had seen it and considered it “basically … not very different” from McChrystal’s approach.
He made it clear, however, that the issue remained extremely sensitive.
“We all remember that most of the civilian casualties that have been caused in the past by international forces in Afghanistan have been the result of airstrikes and heavy artillery,” Omar said. “We hope if there is an option to avoid this, that this will be considered.”