General David Petraeus, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan on Wednesday issued fresh guidelines to nearly 150,000 foreign troops, emphasising the need to avoid civilian casualties.
Civilian deaths during Western operations are hugely controversial in the nearly nine-year Afghan war. Reducing the number of such incidents is seen as crucial to a US-led counter-insurgency strategy designed to end the conflict.
Petraeus took command of US-led NATO troops in Afghanistan on July 4 with the conflict at its deadliest when US President Barack Obama sacked his predecessor General Stanley McChrystal for insubordination.
“We must continue — indeed redouble — our efforts to reduce the loss of innocent civilian life to an absolute minimum. Every Afghan civilian death diminishes our cause,” Petraeus said.
“If we use excessive force or operate contrary to our counter-insurgency principles, tactical victories may prove to be strategic setbacks,” said the direction, which was published by NATO.
Before using force, commanders must make sure that no civilians are present, according to the new rules, except in cases of self-defence.
Petraeus also emphasised the need to partner at all times with Afghan troops, whose training and development is seen as crucial to Western troops being able to hand over security responsibility and draw down their presence.
Widely credited with turning around the conflict in Iraq, Petraeus is easily the most celebrated general and now bears responsibility for trying to rescue the faltering war in Afghanistan.
NATO in its statement said the guidelines ensured “that some areas that may have led to misperceptions are clarified.”
“The directive firmly places the presence of civilians at the centre of every decision involving the use of force,” NATO said.
The conflict is killing record numbers of NATO soldiers and July became the deadliest month of the war for American forces with 66 US troops killed.
The Afghan war has become increasingly unpopular amid a rising death toll and a lack of confidence in Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
NATO and the United States have close to 150,000 troops in the country, with 30,000 deployed to the southern Taliban heartland in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in a bid to reverse Taliban momentum.
The leak of 92,000 US government documents on the war has provided more ammunition to opponents of the mission, who point to files alleging Pakistan — a US ally — has cultivated links with Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in an interview aired Sunday that there were encouraging signs in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, with security improving and advances on the economic front.