By ERIC SCHMITT
Published: June 10, 2012
WASHINGTON — The senior allied commander in Afghanistan has ordered new restrictions on airstrikes against Taliban fighters who hide in residential homes, coalition officials said Sunday, a move in response to a NATO attack in the eastern part of the country last week that Afghan officials say killed 18 civilians
“Given our commitment to protect Afghan civilians, restricting the use of air-delivered munitions against insurgents within civilian dwellings is a prudent and logical step in the progression in the campaign,” Jamie Graybeal, a NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, said in an e-mail on Sunday.
Officials said the directive from Gen. John R. Allen, the commander for international and United States forces in Afghanistan, underscores NATO’s existing commitment to protecting civilians. It also marks a triumph for President Hamid Karzai, who has repeatedly stressed that civilian casualties undermine relations between the countries. Mr. Karzai has frequently pushed for a less confrontational approach in dealing with the Taliban.
After a meeting on Saturday between Mr. Karzai, General Allen and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker of the United States to discuss the issue, aides to Mr. Karzai released a statement saying that General Allen had pledged to halt attacks altogether on residential areas and homes.
On Sunday, however, American officials said General Allen’s order did not necessarily go that far and sought to describe it in more nuanced terms, saying that NATO would continue to conduct operations against insurgents who use civilian dwellings for shelter.
“When there is concern over the presence of civilians, air-delivered munitions will not be employed while other means are available,” said a senior United States defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the policy deliberations.
Militants often hide in civilian homes, so a complete ban on airstrikes could hinder the ability of American forces to pursue the Taliban. General Allen’s order does not affect ground operations against insurgents. An agreement between the two countries in April gave lead authority for night raids to the Afghans, although missions are to be conducted jointly and targets selected by consensus. Allied officials still retain control over dropping bombs in these operations, and Afghan officials say they were not involved in the decision to carry out the fatal airstrike last week.
That attack marked a setback to an encouraging trend: Civilian casualties in Afghanistan dropped significantly in the first four months of 2012, and a smaller proportion of the deaths was attributed to coalition and Afghan forces compared with a year earlier, the United Nations director in the country said last month.
The joint Afghan-NATO raid last week was hunting a Taliban commander and some of his fighters who had holed up in a home in Logar Province where a wedding had taken place, according to local residents. An early-morning firefight broke out between the coalition troops and the insurgents, with the civilians trapped inside. The coalition decided to call in an airstrike, which killed the insurgents but also 18 civilians, including 9 children, Afghan officials said.
On Friday, General Allen apologized for the civilian deaths and took the unusual step of meeting with the relatives of some of those killed.
At the high-level meeting the next day, Mr. Karzai said that conducting airstrikes against insurgents near residential areas and homes would not only hurt the two countries’ often tense relationship, but could also jeopardize a newly signed strategic partnership agreement, said the American defense official, who was briefed on the meeting.
That pact, which President Obama and Mr. Karzai signed in Kabul last month, addresses a broad range of issues, including security and social and economic development. It pledges American support for Afghanistan for 10 years after the withdrawal of combat troops at the end of 2014.
General Allen did not disagree with Mr. Karzai, and said that the allied campaign was at a stage where an agreement to cease airstrikes near civilian dwellings was reasonable, the American official recounted.
“This was less a demand than it was an appeal to ensure that the agreements made between the two countries cannot be put into jeopardy by other actors,” the American official said. “But make no mistake, we are going to preserve our flexibility to protect our troops and our partners.”
General Allen’s directive comes nearly two years after Gen. David H. Petraeus, upon assuming command of international forces in Afghanistan, issued new guidelines on the use of force in Afghanistan that expanded restrictions on artillery strikes and aerial bombardment, but clarified that troops had the right to self-defense.
Troops widely complained that restrictions put in place by General Petraeus’s predecessor, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, exposed them to excessive risk by tying their hands when they sought to attack people suspected of being militants or destroy buildings used to harbor insurgents.
But General McChrystal’s rules were popular with Afghan officials, including President Karzai, and human rights advocates, who said the restrictions had significantly reduced Afghan civilian deaths.
On Sunday, human rights advocates expressed wariness about whether General Allen’s orders would have an immediate impact. “We’ve seen improvements in detention-related abuses and excessive force at checkpoints, but when it comes to civilian casualties, we’re still seeing tragic incidents, even today,” said John Sifton, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director for Asia.
A version of this article appeared in print on June 11, 2012, on page A5 of the New York edition with the headline: Allies Restrict Airstrikes Against Taliban in Homes.
Tags: NATO, US, occupation, of, Afghanistan, CIA, Pakistan, Terrorist, Punjabi, ISI, Pashtuns=, Afghan, Resisitance, Taliban,
Location: Afghanistan (load item map)
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