The new commander of forces in Afghanistan has announced he will be much more cautious than his predecessors in using Predators in situations that put civilian life at risk.

 

Dexter Filkins for NYT:

In interviews over the past few days, the commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, said the use of airstrikes during firefights would in most cases be allowed only to prevent American and other coalition troops from being overrun. Even in the cases of active firefights with Taliban forces, he said, airstrikes will be limited if the combat is taking place in populated areas — the very circumstances in which most Afghan civilian deaths have occurred. The restrictions will be especially tight in attacking houses and compounds where insurgents are believed to have taken cover.

“Air power contains the seeds of our own destruction if we do not use it responsibly,” General McChrystal told a group of his senior officers during a video conference last week. “We can lose this fight.” “When we shoot into a compound, that should only be for the protection of our forces,” he said. “I want everyone to understand that.”

The statements by General McChrystal signaled the latest tightening of the rules for using airstrikes, which, while considered indispensable for protecting troops, have killed hundreds of civilians. They have also angered the Afghan government, which has repeatedly criticized American and NATO forces for not taking enough care with civilian lives.

[…]

Referring to airstrikes, General McChrystal said, “If it is just to defeat the enemy, then we are not going to do it, even if it means we are going to step away from that firefight and fight another time.”

This seems very much in accordance with his “Commander’s Initial Guidance” issued on June 13.  Specifically, he specified that the campaign must be one that “Protects the Afghan people–allowing them to choose a future they can be proud of” and

The ongoing insurgency must be met with a counterinsurgency campaign adapted to the unique conditions in each area “Provides a secure environment allowing good government and economic development to undercut the causes and advocates of insurgency.”

It has long been obvious that air strikes, which maximize force protection but incur a much heightened risk of collateral damage, undermine the success of the campaign.  If the mission were simply one of enemy force attrition, then the speed, lethality, and surprise afforded by Predator and other systems outweigh the ill will caused by killing noncombatants.   In a counterinsurgency or stability mission, however, that’s not the case.

McChrystal’s order will almost certainly mean more American troops die in the next year than would be the case under the old ROE.  But it also means those deaths are less likely to be in vain. His caution that “We can lose this fight” is far too tepid; we are losing this fight, if it’s not already lost.  Ending the tactic that was doing the most damage to the chance of turning that around, however, is a good start.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.