By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
July 6, 2009 - A new tactical directive for coalition forces serving in Afghanistan re-emphasizes the importance of preventing civilian casualties. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, released the directive July 2. It builds on previous tactics and is much clearer about use of close-air support, searching Afghan houses and protecting Afghan cultural and religious sensitivities. All coalition forces in Afghanistan must follow the directive.
Taliban fighters use a tactic of engaging coalition forces from positions that expose Afghan civilians to danger. Close-air support of coalition and Afghan personnel engaged in a May 4 firefight with the Taliban in Afghanistan's Farah province killed numerous civilians. The Taliban cite such incidents to lead people to believe the NATO-led force does not care for Afghan civilians.
McChrystal's tactical directive emphasizes that ISAF is in Afghanistan to protect the people from the insurgents. "Like any insurgency, there is a struggle for support and will of the population," he wrote. "Gaining and maintaining that support must be our overriding operational imperative – and the ultimate objective of every action we take."
Still, the directive does not prevent commanders from protecting the lives of their troops engaged in direct combat.
The directive is general because the nature of a counterinsurgency is complex and no one can foresee all eventualities, officials said. McChrystal expects commanders at all levels to understand the directive and use it when planning and conducting operations. "Following this intent requires a cultural shift within our forces – and complete understanding at every level," he wrote.
The tactical guidance takes the new strategy for Afghanistan as its base, recognizing that ISAF and Afghan forces may win tactical victories against the Taliban, but lose the war. "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 wrote.
Specifically, the directive calls on commanders "to scrutinize and limit the use of force like close air support against residential compounds and other locations likely to produce civilian casualties." Bombing residential compounds will be allowed only under very limited conditions, the directive says. For example, if a coalition force comes in contact with Taliban fighters and the enemy takes cover in a residential compound, the NATO force can break contact and wait out the enemy rather than calling for close-air support.
Another portion of the directive states that any search of Afghan homes will be done by Afghan security forces with the support of local authorities.
"No ISAF forces will enter or fire upon, or fire into a mosque or any religious or historical site except in self-defense," McChrystal wrote in the directive. "All searches and entries for any other reason will be conducted by the Afghan National Security Forces."
The directive is not a departure from past practices, officials said, noting that killing civilians never has been an International Security Assistance Force tactic.
"Working together with our Afghan partners, we can overcome the enemy's influence and give the Afghan people what they deserve: a country at peace for the first time in three decades, foundations of good governance and economic development," McChrystal said.