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Page last updated at 16:12 GMT, Monday, 22 June 2009 17:12 UK

US 'to limit Afghan air strikes'

US Marines in Farah province (11.6.09)
US troops will be told to break off an engagement if civilians are in danger

The new US commander in Afghanistan is expected to issue new orders limiting the use of air strikes to reduce civilian casualties, officials say.

Gen Stanley McChrystal is due to tell troops to break off from fire fights with the Taliban rather than call in air strikes that might kill civilians.

The changes come amid increasing tension between Kabul and Washington over the number of civilian casualties.

The deadliest recent US air raid was in western Farah province in May.

The US has admitted that at least 26 people were killed but the Afghan government and human rights groups say the toll was more than 100.

A US military report blamed the civilian deaths on a failure by US forces to follow procedures in air strikes.

The UN says US, Nato and Afghan forces killed 829 civilians while fighting Taliban insurgents last year.

'Imminent danger'

Gen McChrystal took control of international forces in Afghanistan this month.

US military spokesman Rear Adm Greg Smith said that Gen McChrystal would issue orders "within days" saying troops may attack insurgents hiding in Afghan houses if US or Nato forces are in imminent danger and must return fire.

"But if there is a compound they are taking fire from and they can remove themselves from the area safely, without any undue danger to the forces, then that is the option they should take because in these compounds we know there are often civilians kept captive by the Taliban," Rear Adm Smith said.

Gen Stanley McChrystal (File picture)
Gen McChrystal has stressed the need to reduce Afghan civilian casualties

The outgoing US commander in Afghanistan, Gen David McKiernan, issued orders late last year for commanders to set conditions "to minimise the need to resort to deadly force".

But Gen McChrystal's orders are more precise and have stronger language ordering forces to break off from fire fights, Rear Adm Smith said.

The new US commander is on record as saying his measure of effectiveness in Afghanistan will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence not the number of militants killed.

In a video conference with senior US officers after his appointment, Gen McChrystal warned that air strikes had to be used responsibly, the New York Times reported.

"Air power contains the seeds of our own destruction if we do not use it responsibly," he said. "We can lose this fight."

"When we shoot into a compound, that should only be for the protection of our forces. I want everyone to understand that."

Counter-insurgency experts say the "civilians come first" approach was used successfully after the "surge" of troops in Iraq in 2007.

But critics say there are far fewer US and international troops in Afghanistan, and forces on the ground are more likely to need air power, being spread out over a vast and mountainous area.



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