Airstrikes kill fewer Afghans, but more dying on ground

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 2, 2010 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Even as U.S. forces take steps to reduce the number of Afghan civilians killed by aerial attacks, other civilian casualties remain stubbornly high — deaths in so-called escalation of force incidents in which edgy American troops fire on civilians who've come too close to their convoys or roadblocks.

The number of Afghans killed in such incidents rose 43 percent in 2009 to 113, from 79 in 2008, while the total number of NATO coalition-caused civilian deaths and injuries declined 15.5 percent, to 535 from 633.

How to avoid killing civilians has been a persistent problem for American troops since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when several well publicized incidents of U.S. soldiers killing friendly civilians soured many Iraqis on the American presence. It also fueled the insurgency, U.S officials came to believe. "I would argue in many instances we are our own worst enemy,'' Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli said of civilian casualties in 2006, when he was the No. 2 commander in Iraq.

Shortly after Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal assumed command of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan in June, he ordered U.S. troops to back off some fights if civilian casualties couldn't be avoided. In the months since, the use of U.S. air power has dropped, even during the recent offensive in Marjah, where errant air strikes killed at least 35 civilians in incidents that Afghan President Hamid Karzai called "unjustifiable."

However, a similar order involving what McChrystal called "aggressive driving" hasn't cut the number of civilians killed when nervous U.S. troops on the ground warn approaching civilians to back away, then end up opening fire on them.

McChrystal's order, issued in August, was wide ranging, though it drew less attention than his July one about air power. It told American soldiers "to wave, smile and engage in friendly non-verbal interaction with local Afghans" and to lose the sunglasses "so Afghans can see your eyes." He said soldiers should take "stay-away" signs off their vehicles and "pull off the road periodically to allow civilian traffic to pass by."

"I also expect oncoming traffic to travel unimpeded by our movement," McChrystal said — a rejection of the common American tactic in Iraq of driving down the wrong side of a highway to prevent an oncoming suicide bomber from veering suddenly into a convoy.

Some soldiers think that the effort to be a more friendly force could put them at greater risk. They note that U.S. soldiers have been shot by the Afghan counterparts they train and live alongside of and by their interpreters — and that those incidents have taken place before they leave base.

Some say they constantly struggle to keep their comrades safe without violating the directive, and that's never easy. Late last year in Afghanistan's Nanaghar province, members of the Georgia National Guard often repeated an unofficial mantra that spread through the unit when discussing the directive: "I am going to get all my guys home, no matter what."

Military commanders told McClatchy, however, that a review of incidents since McChrystal issued his driving directive disproves that. In every instance in which U.S. troops opened fire on a car since McChrystal arrived, officials told McClatchy, the subsequent investigation found that there was no threat to the soldiers.

McChrystal has made it clear, however, that winning over the Afghan population is critical to success in Afghanistan, and U.S. officials are proud of the decline in overall civilian casualties. McChrystal has acknowledged that he's asking troops to endure more risks, but he's said that in the long term, the risk will drop.

The drop in the number of civilians killed in U.S. air strikes "would tell you we have a focus as a force on civilian casualties," said Maj. Gen. Stephen Mueller, the director of air operations in Afghanistan.

Commanders acknowledge that cutting back on deadly air missions is easier than getting American troops to hold their fire when confronting Afghans whose intentions may not be clear. What kind of munitions to drop from the air often is decided by a person whose life isn't directly at risk.

In contrast, the decision on whether to open fire on an approaching vehicle is made in a split second by the solider whose life is on the line.

"Civilian casualties don't happen because convoys are moving with the flow of traffic. They happen because gunners in convoys perceive a vehicle or pedestrian to be a threat when there is no threat," said Air Force Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, a coalition spokesman. "The intent of General McChrystal's directives are to provide the guidance needed to encourage more tactical patience in these situations."

Several incidents of civilians killed in ground attacks this year have sparked a public and political outcry in Afghanistan.

The most notable happened last month and captured the challenge of forces trying to defend themselves while reaching out to the local population.

Mohammed Younus, a prominent Kabul imam, was driving with his two wives and three children in eastern Kabul when a U.S. military convoy passed by, and a gunner opened fire, killing Younus. It was just two days after a suicide bomber had struck outside a nearby U.S. military base, and the soldiers were on edge.

Residents were outraged. The coalition issued a statement shortly after the shooting, apologizing for firing upon "what appeared to be a threatening vehicle."

(Dion Nissenbaum in Kabul contributed to this article.)

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