World and Nation

U.S. reins in special forces in Afghanistan after civilian deaths

KABUL — Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has brought most U.S. Special Operations forces under his direct control for the first time, out of concern over continued civilian casualties and disorganization among units in the field.

“What happens is, sometimes at cross-purposes, you got one hand doing one thing and one hand doing the other, both trying to do the right thing but working without a good outcome,” McChrystal said in an interview.

Critics, including Afghan officials, human rights workers and some field commanders of conventional U.S. forces, say that Special Operations forces have been responsible for a large number of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan and operate by their own rules.

Maj. Gen. Zahir Azimi, the chief spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, said McChrystal had told Afghan officials he was taking the action because of concern that some American units were not following his orders to make limiting civilian casualties a paramount objective.

“These special forces were not accountable to anyone in the country, but General McChrystal and we carried the burden of the guilt for the mistakes they committed,” he said. “Whenever there was some problem with the special forces we didn’t know who to go to, it was muddled and unclear who was in charge.”

McChrystal has made reducing civilian casualties a cornerstone of his new counterinsurgency strategy, and his campaign has had some success: last year, civilian deaths attributed to the U.S. military were cut by 28 percent, although there were 596 civilian deaths attributed to coalition forces, according to U.N. figures. Afghan and U.N. officials blame Special Operations troops for most of those deaths.

“In most of the cases of civilian casualties, special forces are involved,” said Mohammed Iqbal Safi, of the Afghan Parliament.