WASHINGTON — NATO commanders will clamp down on airstrikes targeting civilian homes, nearly 16 percent of which have injured or killed noncombatants in recent months, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Monday.
“We will not employ aerial-delivered munitions on a civilian dwelling unless, of course, it is the last resort and it is in fact to ensure the defense of our soldiers,” said Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the International Security Assistance Force’s Joint Forces Command. “It does not mean that we will not go after insurgents, or that we don’t expect insurgents to use civilian dwellings.”
Scaparrotti briefed Pentagon reporters via video link from Kabul.
NATO officials there acknowledged Sunday that ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen had agreed with the Afghan government to limit airstrikes on civilian homes. Although Afghan president Hamid Karzai released a subsequent statement claiming such airstrikes would end completely, Scaparrotti said that the new guidance does not alter the rules of engagement.
Troops retain the right of self defense, he said, and that includes employing airstrikes if needed.
Ground commanders will try other options first but, Scaparrotti said, “If they’re in a situation where there are no other options, of course they’ll have availability of air-delivered munitions.”
The new directive affects a minuscule fraction of NATO’s overall operations, he said. Of over 1,300 by helicopters and attack planes in the past six months, 32 have targeted civilian residential compounds.
Five of those strikes caused civilian casualties, including an attack in Logar province last week. The airstrike took out insurgents hiding in a home, but it also killed 18 civilians, nine of whom were children.
Allen has apologized for the civilian deaths, and an investigation is ongoing.
It’s not the first time outcry over civilian casualties has resulted in high-level directives limiting airstrikes. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, issued a directive in 2009 that tightened the criteria, prompting complaints that troops were placed at increased risk as a result.
The new rules will pave a path toward better relations with Afghan populace, which the U.S. counterinsurgency depends on, but is flexible enough to allow airstrikes when needed, Scaparrotti said.
“My personal opinion, having been in here in ’09 and ’10 and back now, is that this is a prudent and a logical evolution in Afghanistan in line with the campaign plan,” he said. “I think as we move forward this is a natural transition in the guidance to our troops.