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04 Aug 10. AFP reported that General David Petraeus has issued new rules to troops in Afghanistan telling them to “redouble” efforts to avoid civilian deaths, seen as a crucial issue in winning the increasingly unpopular war. The head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan told commanders he believed the counter-insurgency strategy was bearing fruit but warned that any civilian casualties risked losing the battle to win Afghan hearts and minds.

“We must continue — indeed, redouble — our efforts to reduce the loss of innocent civilian life to an absolute minimum. Every Afghan civilian death diminishes our cause. If we use excessive force or operate contrary to our counter-insurgency principles, tactical victories may prove to be strategic setbacks,” he said in the directive, which replaces rules issued to troops in July 2009.

The four-star general, credited with turning around the Iraq war, emphasised the need to partner Afghan troops and to make sure that no civilians are present before using force, except in cases of self-defence. Petraeus took over command of more than 140,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan last month from US General Stanley McChrystal, who was sacked for showing disdain for US administration officials in a magazine interview.

McChrystal’s own combat rules, also focused on minimising civilian casualties, drew praise from the Afghan government, but there were complaints by troops who said their hands were sometimes tied. Petraeus had pledged to review those rules and in his new directive he appeared to have updated guidelines on self-defence, but some details were not released due to “operational security”.

Civilian casualties are hugely controversial in the nearly nine-year
Afghan war. Reducing the number of such incidents is seen as crucial to a US-led counter-insurgency strategy designed to end the conflict. President Hamid Karzai made his own plea to troops on Wednesday, following the release of Petraeus’ guidelines.

“Civilian casualties under any circumstances are not acceptable. Afghan and international forces must employ necessary precautions to avoid them and make this a top priority in operations,” he said in a statement.

The statement also addressed a dispute between NATO forces over an incident in Helmand province in which Karzai alleged that coalition troops had killed 52 civilians in a rocket attack on July 23.
Karzai on Wednesday reduced the alleged toll to 39 deaths and four injured, but NATO continues to deny the incident took place. Last Tuesday Petraeus released a separate set of Afghan counter-insurgency guidelines, which asked foreign troops to “be a good guest” while urging them to
“fight hard” and get tough on corruption. These guidelines reiterate a number of points set out by Petraeus in June 2008, when he was commanding US forces in Iraq, including advice to troops to remove their sunglasses, patrol on foot, meet locals and distinguish between insurgents and those working for national unity. The renewed push on the counter-insurgency strategy comes as US public support for the war and US President Barack Obama’s handing of it hit an all-time low, according to a poll released Tuesday. The death toll for US troops in July hit a record high of 66, out of 415 NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) deaths in Afghanistan so far this year, according to the independent icasualties.org website.

US reinforcements are trying to drive back Taliban insurgents in the south with the last units of a 30,000-strong surge of troops due to swell American numbers to 100,000 in the coming weeks.

On Wednesday, an adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai escaped an
assassination attempt in the country’s south unharmed, two days after a similar attack left another adviser badly wounded.

Karzai recently pledged that the Afghan army and police would be able to take responsibility for the country’s security by the end of 2014. Obama has said some US troops will

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