Responding to mounting criticism of civilian casualties caused by air strikes, the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) tightened the rules of engagement (RoE) last July. More recently, senior and squadron commanders from UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) revealed that this move brought the RoEs for the ISAF into line with the strict procedures that have been long established in the British air arm, which is the second-largest contributor of airpower in Afghanistan.
In a statement carefully worded to avoid upsetting his American allies, the senior RAF commander welcomed the July 6 HQ ISAF tactical directive because it established the principle that “if there is doubt, there is no doubt–the weapon is not released. The RAF makes every effort to minimize civilian casualties while protecting coalition forces and enjoys a highly successful track record in both endeavors.” In a briefing attended by AIN, an RAF squadron commander showed video from a Lockheed Martin Sniper targeting pod onboard a BAE Harrier GR.9 that depicted a bombing deliberately aborted by the pilot after the weapon was released and heading for the target.
A report by Human Rights Watch last year was critical of the “collateral damage” caused by NATO air power in Afghanistan and suggested that the RoEs employed by U.S. forces were not as rigorous as they should be. Afghan President Hamid Karzai endorsed the criticism. Then a report by the United Nations Assistance Mission (UNAMA) claimed that one third of all civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the first half of this year were caused by “airstrikes.” U.S. General Stanley McChrystal made the change in the RoEs when he assumed command of the ISAF last June. “Although the majority of incidents are caused by insurgents, the Afghan people hold ISAF to a higher standard,” he wrote. According to subsequent briefings by the ISAF, the changes had an immediate effect in reducing collateral damage, despite an increase in airstrikes during the summer.
The RAF squadron commander said that the RoEs employed by British forces were “incredibly stringent. We don’t ask ourselves, ‘Could I drop?,’ we ask, ‘Should I drop?’”
He described an attack by an RAF Harrier that launched two Raytheon Paveway IV dual-GPS/laser-guided bombs against a senior Taliban commander who had been “positively identified” by Special Forces as the top setter of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the region. They had been tracking him for three weeks. The insurgent was driving a vehicle, which, as it approached a road junction, made an unexpected stop close to an unidentified compound with a half-dozen people standing outside. (see photos, right) The bombs were already on their way, launched with laser guidance at medium altitude at a range of 3.5 miles. The pilot began to drag the cross hairs on his Sniper targeting display away from the vehicle and quickly conferred with the ground commander, who could not positively identify the people as being associated with the insurgent. Making a split-second decision, the pilot “pulled off” the bombs into open ground, where they detonated in an airburst. The people fled the scene, no doubt in shock, but still alive.
“There is extensive legal and operational deliberation before any [air] attack is authorized and throughout its prosecution,” noted the senior RAF commander.
“The majority of civilian casualties in Afghanistan are caused by suicide bombers and IEDs aimed at pro-Afghan government forces,” he added. He suggested that the Taliban has become skilled in “information operations” in order to discredit coalition forces. He also questioned the methodology used by UNAMA for its report because “it counted all indirect fires (IDF) as ‘airstrikes.’ There was no discrimination between air-delivered weapons and mortars, artillery or rockets.”
McChrystal called for enhanced training of ISAF combat units to apply the new tactical directive. “ISAF must work together with home-station training centers and professional development schools to ensure that units are properly prepared,” he recommended. “The TD stresses the necessity to avoid winning tactical victories while suffering strategic defeats. Commanders must…consider the effects of their actions on the Afghan population at every stage.”
Hardly had these words been written when at least 50 Afghanis were killed in an airstrike called in by German troops against an oil tanker vehicle that had been hijacked. McChrystal made clear his displeasure at the incident because it was not clear whether the people gathered around the tanker were insurgents or civilians, who were merely seeking to siphon fuel from it. The German troops believed that the tanker was being prepared for a suicide attack against their positions, which were nearby.