- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sobered by the backlash from civilian casualties, the U.S. military is taking steps to tighten restrictions on the use of air power over Afghanistan.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, will order U.S. and NATO forces to break away from engagements with militants who are hiding among villagers as part of a comprehensive “tactical directive,” a coalition official said Tuesday.

“It will cover all the aspects that can make a difference to improve security for the Afghan people and make the use of force as safe as possible given an enemy that is on purpose trying to cause death to civilians,” said Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, chief spokesman for NATOs International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

This evolution reflects an understanding that the Talibans strategy includes intentionally staging attacks that will lead to civilian casualties, he said, while pointing out the directive is the latest of many that show the coalition is a “learning organization.”

The order, first reported by the New York Times, amounts to one of the most concrete U.S. efforts to date to protect backcountry Afghans from harm and reverse backsliding public support for the counterinsurgency effort.

“Air power contains the seeds of our own destruction if we do not use it responsibly,” Gen. McChrystal told a group of senior officers during a video conference last week, according to the paper. “We can lose this fight.”

An unclassified report released by the military conceded that a failure by U.S. forces to follow strict operational procedures in air strikes early last month in western Afghanistans Farah province “likely” caused the death of at least 26 civilians, adding that the actual toll will never be determined.

Word of the incident provoked anti-U.S. protests across the country and calls from Afghan lawmakers for an outright ban on air strikes. Precise circumstances of the incident and the resulting death toll have been in dispute.

Another report by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) found that as many as 86 civilians died, with some Taliban among the victims. The U.S. militarys investigative team acknowledged the AIHRC report as a “balanced, thorough investigation” into the incident.

The Afghan government claimed the attack left at least 100 civilians dead, which would have made it the largest number of civilians killed in a single incident since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban regime in 2001.

The militarys internal investigation of the May 4-5 engagement found that U.S. forces in the air and on the ground observed the rules of engagement, but three air strikes by a B-1 bomber did not follow operational directives laid down by then-Commander Gen. David McKiernan to first ensure civilians were not present.

“Not applying all of that guidance likely resulted in civilian casualties,” the report said.

The Washington Times reported May 15 that several residents of Farahs Bala Boluk district who lost family members in the attack said that most of the militants had moved on two hours before the air strikes began.

Video footage taken from one of the B-1 planes reveals groups of militants fleeing into the compounds in the village of Gerani, U.S. spokesmen have said, before 500- and 2,000-pound bombs were dropped. The U.S. report estimates at least 78 Taliban militants were killed in the strikes.

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