New Directive on Air Strikes

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new top commander of US forces in Afghanistan, was poised to issue a directive late last week instructing US troops to avoid air attacks against Taliban insurgents in scenarios in which civilians could be placed at grave risk. It calls on US troops to assume that Afghan civilians are present in a town or village where the Taliban has taken refuge and to refrain from calling in air strikes or commencing a firefight if there is any doubt about the presence of civilians. “We cannot keep going down the path of putting civilians at risk,” Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, US Forces-Afghanistan spokesman, told McClatchy news service. He added, “People want to see changes in behavior.” Afghan civilian casualties caused by US and coalition aircraft have been a sore spot in US-Afghan relations. The issue came to the forefront again in May with the controversial air raid on the village of Garani in Farah province during a lengthy firefight that caused at least 26 civilian deaths. US Central Command’s executive summary of its investigation into the incident, issued on June 19, concluded that the US aircraft strikes were lawful. However, “absent a direct or imminent threat,” it advocated “a tactical approach that prioritizes avoidance of civilian casualties as a fundamental aspect of mission success.” Since taking command on June 15, McChrystal has said reducing civilian casualties would be a top priority. The McClatchy report appeared July 1. (Update: NATO released an unclassified version of the directive on July 6, 2009.).