By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 16, 2008
KABUL, Oct. 15 -- In a bow to public outrage over a recent spate of U.S.-led airstrikes in Afghanistan that resulted in more than 100 civilian deaths, NATO officials have ordered commanders to try to lessen their reliance on air power in battles with insurgents, NATO and Afghan officials said Wednesday.
Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, NATO's chief spokesman in Afghanistan, said commanders are now under orders to consider a "tactical withdrawal" when faced with the choice of calling in air support during clashes in areas where civilians are believed to be present. The goal of the order is to minimize civilian casualties, encourage better coordination with Afghan troops and discourage overreliance on air power to repel insurgent attacks, Blanchette said.
"We'll do anything we can to prevent unnecessary casualties, and we'll ensure that we'll have safe use of force. That includes not only airstrikes but ground operations," Blanchette said.
Confusion and controversy over airstrikes have bedeviled the U.S.-led military mission in Afghanistan in recent months. This summer, three U.S. airstrikes in separate parts of the country that killed more than 100 Afghan civilians provoked sharp criticism from Afghan government officials, the United Nations and international humanitarian groups.
According to the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, more than 1,400 Afghan civilians were killed in the first eight months of this year. Of those, 395 were killed in airstrikes by Western forces. The number of civilians killed by U.S.- and NATO-led airstrikes has risen by 21 percent this year, a recent U.N. report said.
U.S. Gen. David D. McKiernan, top commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, issued the new order early last month. The revised approach came only days after U.N. officials said an investigation into an Aug. 21 airstrike on the town of Azizabad, in the western province of Herat, had revealed that at least 90 civilians were killed when U.S. jets bombarded a suspected Taliban compound there. The U.N. allegations conflicted with accounts initially given by U.S. military officials in Afghanistan, who said their investigation found only five civilians had been killed.
U.S. military officials reversed course, however, after McKiernan called for a reinvestigation of the incident when new evidence emerged. A subsequent independent probe conducted by a top U.S. general concluded that at least 30 civilians were killed in the strike.
The Azizabad attack prompted widespread outrage in Afghanistan and led Afghan President Hamid Karzai to call for a review of the rules of conduct for foreign troops operating in the country.
There are currently about 65,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including about 33,000 U.S. troops. NATO and U.S. military officials have repeatedly said more troops are needed on the ground to cope with the resurgence of Taliban forces across the country, and McKiernan has pointed to the shortage as one reason for the heavy reliance on air power.
The rising civilian death toll associated with the airstrikes has evolved into a major political issue for Karzai, who is expected to run for a second term next year. He and other top Afghan officials have become increasingly vocal in pressuring foreign forces to use more restraint. At the urging of Defense Minister Rahim Wardak, for example, the revised policy includes a directive that only Afghans can conduct the first sweep in house searches.
"In our meeting with NATO in Budapest, we asked that all possible ways and tactics be used to eliminate civilian casualties and for better coordination between Afghan forces and NATO on intelligence," Wardak said Tuesday.
Blanchette said the new order on airstrikes is meant, in part, to address concerns that NATO and U.S. troops are using disproportionate force in response to attacks from Taliban insurgents. Troops will maintain the right to defend themselves against attacks by insurgents, Blanchette said, but would be encouraged to consider a tactical withdrawal whenever possible to spare civilian lives.
"If you can achieve the effect you're looking for without using a 2,000-pound bomb, if you can achieve the same effect you're looking for with a different kind of weapon, then that's your responsibility as a commander on the ground," Blanchette said. "It's a question of requisite restraint."
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.