U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said Wednesday that U.S. and other NATO troops must make a "cultural shift" away from being a force designed for high-intensity combat and instead make protecting Afghan civilians their first priority.
The newly arrived four-star commander said he hopes to install a new military mindset by drilling into troops the need to reduce the number of Afghan civilians killed in combat.
McChrystal is expected to formally announce new combat rules within days that will order troops to break away from fights — if they can do so safely — if militants are firing from civilian homes. One effect of the new order will be that troops may have to wait out insurgents instead of using force to oust them, he said.
"Traditionally American forces are designed for conventional, high-intensity combat," McChrystal said during a visit to Camp Leatherneck, a new U.S. Marine base housing thousands of newly deployed Marines in southern Helmand province. "In my mind what we've really got to do is make a cultural shift."
Because the military is such a big organization, the new message will take "constant repetition," he said.
President Hamid Karzai has pleaded with U.S. and NATO forces for years to reduce the number of Afghan villagers killed in combat. Karzai has long said that such deaths turn civilians away from the government and international forces and toward the Taliban, a point McChrystal underscored.
Troops in center of insurgency
"When you do anything that harms the people you just have a huge chance of alienating the population," he said. "And so even with the best of intentions, if our operation causes them to lose property or loved ones, there is almost no way somebody cannot be impacted in how they view the government and us, the coalition forces."
Thousands of Marines this spring have poured into Helmand — the country's most violent province and the world's largest producer of opium poppies. Southern Afghanistan is the center of the Taliban-led insurgency, which has made a violent comeback in the last three years.
Afghan and coalition forces killed 23 suspected Taliban fighters in a clash Tuesday near Tirin Kot, the capital of southern Uruzgan province, said Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai, an army officer in charge of southern Afghanistan.
A known Taliban commander in the region, Mullah Ismail, was killed during the clash, which took place in a mountainous area, Zazai said.
McChrystal, who took command of all U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan last week, is making his first visits to regional commanders to outline the new combat rules.
"We've lost some of the arrogance I know I had early on," McChrystal told a group of British and U.S. troops, telling them that their war to win over the Afghan population is like a debate. "Don't stop thinking. You don't win an argument when you stop thinking."
He said later that U.S. troops may have been overconfident in the early years of the Afghan conflict after the Taliban regime fell so easily. He said the U.S. may have "oversimplified" the Afghan challenge as a result.
Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the Marine commander at Camp Leatherneck, said his forces were already following McChrystal's new commands.
Learning 'importance of trust'
"Our focus from the very beginning has not been Taliban. It's been civilians," he said. "We've paid a lot of attention to avoiding civilian casualties. ... We have a lot of combat vets, a lot of Iraq vets. And I think we learned early on the importance of trust and support of the locals."
He added: "There will be plenty of opportunities to kill Taliban, and we're pretty good at that. Bur the focus here, the reason we're here, is the people, not the Taliban."
The Pentagon has asked McChrystal for a 60-day review of the Afghan war, a review that could result in a recommendation to shift troops to new locations in Afghanistan. McChrystal said he didn't yet know if he would request more troops.
The Pentagon abruptly pulled McChrystal's predecessor — Gen. David McKiernan — out of Afghanistan one year into a two-year assignment. McChrystal said his deployment did not have a timetable to it, and that he would stay in Afghanistan as long as the Pentagon wanted him there.
He refused to give even an estimate of how long that might be, saying: "My wife would kill me if she read something too long. I do think continuity is key, though."