The “new” rules for the U.S. military in Afghanistan still allow the same kinds of airstrikes that cause most pro-Kabul-government-caused civilian deaths. AP reports the rules as follows:
- Airstrikes must be very limited and authorized but can be used in self-defense if troops’ lives are at risk.
- Troops must be accompanied by Afghan forces before they enter residences.
- Troops cannot go into or fire upon mosques or other religious sites. This is already U.S. policy.
Most civilians killed by U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan die when troops exchanging fire with enemy forces call for air support, as noted by Human Rights Watch in their report, Troops in Contact:
In our investigation, we found that civilian casualties rarely occur during planned airstrikes on suspected Taliban targets (one in each of 2006 and 2007). High civilian loss of life during airstrikes has almost always occurred during the fluid, rapid-response strikes, often carried out in support of ground troops after they came under insurgent attack. Such unplanned strikes included situations where US special forces units-normally small numbers of lightly armed personnel-came under insurgent attack; in US/NATO attacks in pursuit of insurgent forces that had retreated to populated villages; and in air attacks where US “anticipatory self-defense” rules of engagement applied.
These airstrikes make of the majority of airstrikes that kill civilians, which themselves comprise 67 percent of pro-Afghan-government-caused civilian casualties.
Presumably, these rules would have allowed the order to be given for the May 4 bombing in Bala Baluk that killed the most civilians of any airstrike by U.S. forces in Afghanistan to date. NPR’s Tom Bowman reported that the captain who ordered the strike said “had he not called in those airstrikes, he definitely would have lost Marines.” The military argues the reason civilians were killed in this instance was not a deficiency in the rules, per se, but the fact that their rules at the time were not followed. But that argument blatantly ignores the deficiency in a set of rules that allows dropping three-and-a-half tons of ordinance in a civilian-populated area. These new rules do not solve that deficiency, virtually guaranteeing that future mistakes like this one will kill masses of noncombatants. These measure also fail to include stricter guidelines to guarantee accountability when rules are broken.
Restricting airstrikes to instances of self-defense without restricting their use among civilian-populated areas leaves the door open to more instances like Bala Baluk.