General Stanley McChrystal will soon issue a new tactical directive to all US and Nato troops under his command. The directive will authorise ground troops under fire from militants located in buildings or populated areas to first consider disengaging, rather than calling in air strikes that in the past have far too-often unintentionally killed innocent civilians. Now, in populated areas, airpower will be reserved only for protecting US, Nato, and Afghan forces in imminent danger, and not to kill Taliban taking refuge among civilians.
The directive intended to reduce the likelihood of repeating the 4 May bombing in the village of Granai, where Afghan national army and police forces came under a sustained attack from Taliban fighters, leading American military advisers to request three airstrikes from B1 bombers.
These airstrikes, conducted after sunset and without an assessment of potential collateral damage, killed somewhere between 26 civilians (according to US Central Command), 86 (Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission), or 140 (Afghan government). As a senior US military official noted on Monday: "We don't want another Granai. The tactical gains simply don't outweigh the costs."
McChrystal's tactical directive is much welcomed and long overdue. It elevates the principle of civilian protection in combat operations from a minor consideration to a central platform for US and Nato soldiers and pilots. In practice, however, it is unlikely that these new orders will eliminate many of the civilian casualties resulting from US airstrikes in Afghanistan.