- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 4, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan | The commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan issued updated rules of battle Wednesday, repeating his predecessor’s curbs on use of air power and heavy weapons when civilians are at risk but stressing the right of troops to defend themselves.

Also Wednesday, New Zealand announced it suffered its first combat death of the war during an ambush a day earlier in one of Afghanistan’s most peaceful provinces. The Taliban claimed responsibility, raising concern that the insurgency is spreading beyond its strongholds even as U.S. and NATO forces are ramping up the war against the insurgents in the south.

The new guidance comes after widespread complaints from troops that rules laid down by former commander Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal were putting them in danger and handing the advantage to the Taliban.

There had been speculation that Army Gen. David H. Petraeus — who took over from Gen. McChrystal a month ago — might ease the rules. But Gen. Petraeus, like Gen. McChrystal, emphasized that protecting the Afghan people was the top priority in the war.

“We must continue — indeed, redouble — our efforts to reduce the loss of innocent civilian life to an absolute minimum,” Gen. Petraeus wrote in the document released by the NATO command Wednesday.

Some sections were not released for security reasons, the command said.

Gen. McChrystal stressed the need to reduce civilian casualties as a tool for winning the war — noting that every civilian killed in the crossfire created a legion of family members with a grudge against NATO forces and motivation to join the Taliban.

Under this guidance, NATO forces drastically restricted the use of air strikes, which had previously been called in without knowledge of who was inside a building. Troops also were instructed to only fire on people who were actively firing on them.

Though Gen. McChrystal’s directive did frustrate many soldiers in the field, it also led to a drop in civilian deaths attributed to NATO forces.

Gen. Petraeus said nothing in the guidance was meant to hinder the right to self-defense.

“We must employ all assets to ensure our troopers’ safety, keeping in mind the importance of protecting the Afghan people as we do,” Gen. Petraeus wrote.

A spokesman for NATO forces said the directive will help troops understand how to balance the two.

The new directive implied that some lower-level commanders had misinterpreted Gen. McChrystal’s guidance and made rules in their areas more restrictive than needed.

“Subordinate commanders are not authorized to further restrict this guidance without my approval,” Gen. Petraeus wrote in the document.

Gen. Petraeus said the rules were not aimed at slowing the war, but were essential to victory.

“We must continue to demonstrate our resolve to the enemy,” Gen. Petraeus wrote. “We will do so through our relentless pursuit of the Taliban and others who mean Afghanistan harm, through our compassion for the Afghan people, and through the example we provide to our Afghan partners.”

The battle to win over the civilian population is being waged on both sides. The Taliban issued a directive a little over a week ago that calls on their fighters to avoid killing civilians and forbids them from seizing weapons and money.

However, the 69-page Taliban booklet also declares that people working for international forces or the Afghan government are “supporters of the infidels” and can be killed.

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