By Jonathon Burch
KABUL, July 6 (Reuters) - The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan has issued new combat orders designed to reduce civilian casualties, especially from air strikes, underscoring new counter-insurgency tactics.
Civilian casualties are an emotive issue for Afghans, many of whom feel foreign forces take too little care when launching air strikes.
The issue has led to a rift between the Afghan government and its Western backers, Afghan President Hamid Karzai saying foreign air strikes have achieved nothing but the deaths of civilians.
General Stanley McChrystal, who took charge of all foreign troops in Afghanistan last month, said international forces needed to make a "cultural shift" away from conventional warfare and focus on winning the support of Afghans.
An unclassified version of the new "tactical directive" was released on Monday, less than a month after a U.S. military report found strikes by U.S. B1 bombers in May that killed dozens of civilians violated orders already in place at the time.
That report recommended drawing up new guidelines and ordering all U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan to undergo new training.
"We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories — but suffering strategic defeats — by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people," McChrystal said in the unclassified version.
A classified version was issued to commanders last Thursday.
CLOSE AIR SUPPORT
The directive calls for military commanders to "scrutinize" and "limit" the use of close air support (CAS) against residential compounds and other areas likely to result in civilian casualties.
"Commanders must weigh the gain of using CAS against the cost of civilian casualties, which in the long run make mission success more difficult and turn the Afghan people against us," McChrystal said.
Some 800 civilians were killed between January and May this year, a 24 percent increase from the same period in 2008, according to U.N. figures released last month.
More than half of these deaths were caused by insurgents and just over a third by international and Afghan forces, the United Nations said. The rest could not be attributed to any of the parties in the conflict, it said.
The emphasis on disengaging to protect civilians is hardly new. McChrystal’s predecessor, General David McKiernan, issued a similar tactical directive last year after an incident involving a large number of civilian deaths.
But McChrystal said last month that the problem was getting the message down to the soldiers on the ground and he intended to deliver the equivalent of an information campaign to make sure soldiers at all levels understood.
"Following this intent requires a cultural shift within our forces — and complete understanding at every level — down to the most junior soldiers," McChrystal said in the directive.
"I expect leaders to ensure this is clearly communicated and continually reinforced." (Editing by Paul Tait and Tim Pearce)