KABUL, Afghanistan — Beginning Thursday, American soldiers in Afghanistan will be under orders to back down when they're chasing Taliban fighters whenever they think that civilians might be at risk.
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, will issue the directive as part of an effort to cut down on civilian casualties, which have enraged the Afghan government and residents. Instead of calling in air support or firing into civilian homes where Taliban fighters have sought refuge, commanders will be instructed to reach out to tribal elders or undertake other efforts to dislodge the fighters.
The order is consistent with what National Security Adviser James L. Jones told McClatchy in Washington Wednesday was President Barack Obama's concern about civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
"General McChrystal has been given instructions when he left here that, in all military operations, that we redouble our efforts to make sure that innocent loss of life is minimized, with zero being the goal," Jones said, noting that, "In one mishap you can create thousands more terrorists than you had before the mishap."
The new order, however, is likely to draw criticism from some U.S. troops, many of whom feel the rules that govern how they fight the war already are too restrictive.
Many soldiers here say they depend on air power and heavy weaponry because there aren't enough ground troops to chase Taliban forces on foot. Jones said no additional ground troops will be sent this year, even though some ground commanders want them.
"Everybody had their day in court, so to speak, before the president made his decision," he said. "We signed off on the strategy, and now we're in the implementation phase."
McChrystal's order will instruct soldiers to "think about what else can we do," said Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the military's top spokesman in Afghanistan. "We cannot keep going down the path of putting civilians at risk. . . . People want to see changes in behavior."
Airstrikes, which Afghans charge kill innocent people, won't be eliminated, Smith said. "Air power will be as valuable after this directive is issued as it ever was," he said.
The new order, however, will require troops to assume that civilians are present and back off when Taliban fighters escape into villagers' houses, Smith said.
"The assumption must be there are civilians in those residences, and in those instances, he is asking commanders to think of other options in front of them," Smith said.
Those options might include gathering intelligence and regrouping to fight another day; reaching out to a tribal leader or encouraging villagers to help coalition forces track down Taliban forces. In some cases, it could mean letting Taliban escape.
McChrystal's order, an unclassified version of which is expected to be made public later this week, comes on the heels of a Pentagon report issued last month that acknowledged that as many as 86 civilians may have been killed in a May airstrike in Farah province.
The strike, by a B1B strategic bomber, was ordered after Afghan forces came under fire from the Taliban and sought U.S. help. The report faulted Americans on the ground for not determining whether civilians were present before the plane dropped a 2,000-pound bomb.
Since McChrystal took command here last month, he's said reducing civilian casualties would be a top priority.
He repeated that concern Tuesday in an interview Tuesday with Radio Free Europe. "The most important thing is to not hurt the Afghan people because the most important thing is to win their support," he said. "This fight is for the Afghan people, it's not with the Afghan people."
Civilian casualties have become a major source of tension between Afghans and U.S. and other coalition forces here. Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks out frequently against coalition forces and their use of airstrikes on campaign stops as he seeks re-election, and earlier this year, the parliament passed a resolution condemning the use of airstrikes.
"One mistake is OK. But every day there is a mistake. You start to lose sympathy," said Khalid Pashtun, an Afghan-American member of parliament who represents Kandahar province, a Taliban stronghold. "Now, I am an American, and I feel this way. Imagine how the normal Afghan feels. He feels Afghan blood has become very cheap."
McChrystal has briefed Karzai about the new directive and his response was "encouraging," Smith said.
Top military officials here discount concerns that the Taliban will exploit the new order and step up their presence among civilians who often don't reveal Taliban hiding locations, either because they support them or fear retribution.
Military officials, however, said that the Taliban already exploit the way the U.S. has been fighting and purposely flee to villages in anticipation that coalition actions will lead to civilian casualties, exacerbating tensions between the coalition and the civilians.
(Margaret Talev and Steven Thomma contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy's national security team at Nukes & Spooks
McClatchy Newspapers 2009