WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan issued a directive on Wednesday that could facilitate use of air strikes but also called on troops to do everything possible to avoid putting civilians at risk.
General David Petraeus, who took command of the nine-year-old war in Afghanistan in July, did not rewrite the rules guiding the use of force in his new “tactical directive.”
But U.S. officials said he clarified them in a way that may address concerns that some troops — erring on the side of caution — had avoided calling in air power against Taliban insurgents, even when it was appropriate to do so.
Critics in Congress had said restrictions, perceived or not, had put U.S. forces at unnecessary risk in an effort to protect civilians from harm.
Petraeus made clear that an overly strict interpretation of his rules was not allowed, saying: “Subordinate commanders are not authorized to further restrict this guidance without my approval.”
Petraeus, an architect of the counter-insurgency strategy guiding U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, also called for a redoubling of efforts to protect civilians.
“Every Afghan civilian death diminishes our cause,” Petraeus wrote, according to excerpts from a declassified version released by the NATO-led force.
“If we use excessive force or operate contrary to our counterinsurgency principles, tactical victories may prove to be strategic setbacks.”
Civilian deaths caused by foreign forces are a major source of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers.
But the rising death toll among U.S. forces is also touching a nerve in Washington, where lawmakers are voicing doubts about President Barack Obama’s strategy to win the war.
July was the bloodiest month on record for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
James Dubik, a retired lieutenant general now at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said he believed that Petraeus’ tactical guidance aimed to empower lower-ranking officers to make decisions quickly.
“Petraeus wants not to over-centralize decision making. So what I expect is that in the classified version (there) is a pushing-down of the decision making,” Dubik said.
Obama in December ordered an additional 30,000 troops to fight the war. He also said he intended to start pulling out U.S. troops from July 2011, as long as conditions are right.
The tactical guidance put a strong emphasis on partnering with Afghan forces, which U.S. commanders hope will be able to gradually take control of security.
Petraeus wrote that he expected “every operation and patrol to be partnered.” Any exceptions would need to cleared up by high-ranking officials, he said.
U.S. military officials hope the expansion of partnering will increase the capability of Afghan security forces. Petraeus said it also had the added benefit of reducing civilian casualties, since Afghans could better gauge the situation on the ground.
“Partnering is how we operate. Some civilian casualties result from a misunderstanding or ignorance of local customs and behaviors,” Petraeus said.
Editing by Eric Walsh