Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has issued a new directive aimed at avoiding civilian casualties, warning that "the Taliban cannot militarily defeat us — but we can defeat ourselves."
Portions of the directive, issued Thursday, were posted Monday on U.S. Forces-Afghanistan’s Facebook page.
Among other things, it authorizes the use of airstrikes and assaults against homes under only limited conditions, the details of which were not made public. Exempt are situations in which troops are acting in self-defense and there are no other options.
The directive requires any entry into an Afghan house to be done by Afghan security forces with the support of local authorities, taking into account the "unique cultural sensitivities" toward local women.
In addition, no troops will enter or fire at or into any mosque or religious or historical site except in self-defense, the directive says.
All searches and entries for any other reason, it says, will be conducted by Afghan security forces.
In several recent public appearances, McChrystal — who took charge of U.S. and NATO troops in June — has dwelled on the need to protect the Afghan people and the high cost of civilian deaths to the coalition’s mission.
The order comes as U.S. and Afghan forces conduct a major operation in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan geared toward stabilizing the area and grabbing control from the Taliban. It also follows outcries over the rising number of civilians killed in combat.
More than 2,100 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2008, according to a U.N. report released earlier this year. While militants were responsible for 55 percent of the deaths, 39 percent of the victims were killed by coalition and Afghan forces, the report stated.
In remarks made in June, McChrystal said that one effect of the new order will be that troops may have to wait out insurgents instead of using force to oust them.
The commander says in the directive that "this is different from conventional combat, and how we operate will determine the outcome more than traditional measures, like capture of terrain or attrition of enemy forces."
"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."
Apart from being a legal and moral issue, he says, "it is an overarching operational issue — a clear-eyed recognition that loss of popular support will be decisive to either side in this struggle.
"The Taliban cannot militarily defeat us — but we can defeat ourselves."
He acknowledged that restraints on the use of force entails risks to the troops, but said excessive force resulting in an alienated population "will produce far greater risks."