KABUL — Amid renewed outrage over the conduct of American forces overseas, the U.S. military is preparing to broaden the scope of battlefield rules in another attempt to better protect innocent Afghan lives.
A year after Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal issued a tactical directive meant to minimize civilian deaths in Afghanistan, the U.S. military is soon expected to expand an order that provides guidance on how and when to use airstrikes and helicopter support in battle.
"Whereas before, the rules were focused on the problem we had, which was dropping bombs on residential compounds, now they're focused on any area where there might be a civilian," said Army Col. Rich Gross, McChrystal's chief legal adviser in Afghanistan.
Gross declined to discuss most details of the classified revisions, but he said the goal was to give coalition forces more direction on how to fight insurgents without needlessly killing civilians.
The revision of the tactical directive comes as the U.S. military is facing renewed scrutiny of its battlefield policies after the release of graphic video footage of a 2007 assault by an Apache helicopter on a group of men in Iraq.
A dozen men were killed in the attack, including two Reuters news staffers who were covering fighting in the Baghdad neighborhood.
The leaked video, which has been viewed more than 5 million times since it was released last weekend, has prompted calls for a new investigation of the attack and sparked an intense debate over U.S. military policy.
However, it isn't expected to have an impact on the new rules for Afghanistan, which were completed in February and are awaiting final approval before being released in the coming weeks.
Since he took command of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan last year, McChrystal has made reducing civilian deaths a top priority.
One of his first acts was to issue a tactical directive that called on the military to take extra precautions when targeting residential compounds. He's also placed limits on night raids.
Night raids have been criticized because of a recent admission by the coalition that its forces had killed five civilians, including three women, in a botched night raid two months ago. Afghan investigators have alleged that U.S. forces tried to cover up the killings, and NATO was forced to backtrack on initial reports that implied that insurgents had killed the women.
McChrystal's focus on minimizing civilian casualties sparked some emotional blowback, with critics arguing that the general was endangering American lives unnecessarily to protect Afghans.
McChrystal long has argued, however, that coalition forces are better served in the long run by doing all they can to reduce civilian deaths in Afghanistan. Military strategists refer to it as "insurgent math."
"You may have killed five insurgents, but created 10 more," Gross said. "Or 20. You have an entire village that has moved over to the side of the insurgency."
The U.S. military is pointing to a new academic study that bolsters that argument.
In briefings based on military data, academic researchers who were advising McChrystal recently presented officials in Kabul with groundbreaking analysis documenting a dramatic spike in violence after Afghan civilians were killed in coalition attacks.
In a PowerPoint presentation that McClatchy obtained, the researchers concluded that violence jumped by 25 to 65 percent for five months after Afghan civilians died in such attacks. The researchers documented a smaller spike in violence after insurgent attacks killed civilians.
Gross called the findings a "light bulb" moment that offered concrete proof to bolster McChrystal's directives for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
"Civilian casualties in the long run actually increase the risks to our forces, and so by managing the tactical risk ... carefully and making sure you're shooting the right people and not dropping bombs on the wrong people that really, in the long run, you're reducing violence to our forces overall," Gross said.
Academic researchers who are familiar with the study cautioned that the results are preliminary and said the information needed more analysis before they could draw any significant conclusions.
"At least in the short term, strict ROE (rules of engagement) shift risks from civilians onto coalition forces, so ISAF has very strong reasons to understand the long-term implications of stricter ROE and reduced civilian casualties," said Jacob N. Shapiro, an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University who's studied counterinsurgency strategy.
McChrystal's stance has received unexpected support in the United States.
"They've turned the corner on how they think about civilian casualties," said Sarah Holewinski, the executive director of Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, a Washington-based nonprofit group that pushes for protecting civilians trapped by war.
Holewinski recently co-authored an opinion piece for The Christian Science Monitor in which she hailed a 30 percent drop in civilian deaths in Afghanistan.
"Protecting the population isn't political correctness; it's a vital military objective and a distinct advantage over an enemy that uses civilians as shields," she and former Army Capt. James Morin wrote in the piece. "The drop in civilian casualties is a mark of success."
Marine officers who were involved in ordering air support during the recent offensive in Marjah backed that view.
"I can count at least four times when the ROE caused us to ID that a suspected bad guy wasn't a bad guy," said U.S. Marine Capt. Benjamin Willson, who admitted to voicing obscene frustrations at times during the Marjah offensive when his requests for air support were denied.
"We were never in a situation where the ROE got a Marine killed," Willson said. "The ROE, in effect, saved more innocent lives than it put Marines in danger."
The checks already in place were evident at a Marine combat outpost in southern Afghanistan during a recent response to insurgent gunfire.
As the military patrol called in information on the attack, Willson stood in front of the video screen and squinted at two figures hiding behind a wall. He and the other Marines who were watching the live aerial feed at the outpost seemed certain that these two suspicious figures were part of the attack.
As the patrol closed in, the Marines at the base put in a request to launch a Hellfire missile at the shady characters. While they were waiting for approval, they kept searching for proof that these were the men who'd hit the patrol.
Word soon came back from the higher-ups: no missile strike. It would violate the military rules of war because the two men were too close to a mosque.
Instead, with Willson's guidance, the Marine patrol sneaked up on the men and detained them without much fuss. Under questioning, the suspicious pair said they were startled pot smokers hiding in a field.
After reviewing the aerial footage, the officers with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment seemed to think the guys might be telling the truth.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Afghanistan news at McClatchy's blog Checkpoint Kabul