Fewer civilians were killed by airstrikes in Afghanistan last month even as U.S. and NATO forces pushed deep into Taliban territory, driving clashes and Western casualties sharply higher.
Western and Afghan officials say the drop appears to be an early indication of success for restrictions on air power imposed in July by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of coalition forces, in an attempt to limit civilian casualties. The U.S. and NATO saw Afghan anger over the deaths as a major impediment to a new counterinsurgency strategy that makes winning over the population a higher priority than killing insurgents.
Six civilians died in airstrikes last month compared to 89 in July 2008, according to an Associated Press count of reports on civilian deaths by witnesses and Afghan officials. None of the reports was the subject of significant dispute by the U.S. and NATO.
A single mishap could send civilian deaths up again this month, dashing Western hopes of any real downward trend. But Afghan civilians and officials say the lower death toll for July mirrors a broader reduction in the accidental bombing of nonmilitary targets.
"When the Taliban are moving in our village, we are scared, but the good thing is there has been no bombing of civilian homes," said Baz Mohammad, a grape farmer from the village of Nilgham in the southern province of Kandahar. "A few months ago there was bombing every day in our district."
More targeted strikes
Western military officials attribute the drop in large part to less powerful and more carefully targeted airstrikes.
The U.S.-led Western coalition launched more than 40 percent more airstrikes last month than in July 2008, according to U.S. Air Force statistics. But at the same time, many of the strikes appeared to be far less powerful: a tally of the total number of rockets, bombs and cannon shells used in airstrikes dropped 50 percent.
"You're starting to see a lot more emphasis now on using the least amount of force necessary to get the result we want," said Capt. Frank Harnett, a spokesman for U.S. Air Force Central Command. "There's an added emphasis about noncombatant casualties. That will drive decisions made out in the field."
Air Force Staff Sgt. Dan Waugh just started a one-year tour in Afghanistan as an air controller, who moves with ground troops and communicates with aircraft called in to attack insurgent positions.
Waugh, who's stationed at a forward operating base in the Spin Boldak district of southern Kandahar, near the border with Pakistan, said he's been told to avoid strikes on buildings. McChrystal has told his commanders to ask themselves how they can be sure there are no civilians inside compounds where militants are also seeking shelter.
"They're wanting us to get away from structures," Waugh said. "If a commander orders an attack on a ridge-line, and it's a clear view and there's no civilians, that's fine."
The Taliban government was overthrown in late 2001 by relatively small numbers of Western troops working with local forces and backed by aircraft armed with precision-guided bombs and missiles, a tactic promoted by some officials in the Bush administration as a revolution in modern warfare.
But the approach proved ill-suited to stabilizing the country once the Taliban became insurgents who hid in rural villages and launched fierce attacks on small Western units who were far from reinforcements. Hundreds of civilians were killed by airstrikes, many called in by Western troops under fire from Taliban fighters they believed to be taking cover in buildings.
Deaths fueled outrage
The deaths enraged villagers, sparking angry protests and prompting calls from President Hamid Karzai to halt aerial attacks in populated areas.
Western military officials, outside experts, local and national Afghan leaders and troops on the ground say they believe such deaths are now less likely.
"A very good and positive change has come in the past two months," said Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi. "The coalition are very careful now in using bombs ... I hope it will continue."
Last month, about 4,000 U.S. Marines flew into the southern province of Helmand to wrest control from the Taliban ahead of the Aug. 20 presidential election — the largest U.S. military operation in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion. The new U.S. presence has allowed British forces to intensify their operations northeast of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.
The number of clashes involving Western forces rose to 590 in July 2009, a more than 30 percent increase over the same month last year, according to Air Force statistics. U.S. and NATO troops deaths in direct combat with insurgents rose from 14 to 23, an AP count shows.
July also saw an increase in clashes and airstrikes when compared to the previous month, according to Air Force figures and the AP tally. Civilian deaths nonetheless dropped slightly, from 10 in June, and munitions expenditures decreased.
For Western forces, July was the bloodiest month since the start of the war.
Western deaths on the rise
NATO says the new restrictions on air power were not a factor in the rising Western death toll. Most deaths were a result of roadside bombs rather than direct combat with insurgents who would be vulnerable to airstrikes.
"What you're seeing, fundamentally, is not an effort to reduce airstrike numbers alone but to change their character," said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Western planes launched 222 airstrikes in Afghanistan last month, Air Force statistics show, compared to 156 in July 2008. But over the same period, the number of rockets, bombs and strafing runs dropped from 752 to 369.
"You've created much more demanding release and targeting criteria," Cordesman said, although he noted that the American-led NATO alliance was trying to reduce civilian deaths in airstrikes before McChrystal took over.
NATO's figures on civilian deaths appear to mirror the AP's. The alliance's new secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, praised the "drastic decline in the number of civilian casualties" last week during his first trip to Afghanistan.
Afghan officials say there has been a change in public opinion around the country.
"The people are pleased, they had a lot of concerns in the past about airstrikes. It continued until the new directive by the ISAF," said Musa Zafar, an international humanitarian law investigator with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, a nine-member panel appointed by the Afghan president.