The US will change its rules of engagement in order to ease tensions between NATO and the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan.  New theater commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal will order American troops not to engage Taliban terrorists in houses in order to avoid the collateral damage that comes from urban warfare — and the political damage it does to Karzai.  Instead, US forces will retreat unless retreat is impossible (h/t HA reader Geoff A):

The top U.S. general in Afghanistan will soon formally order U.S. and NATO forces to break away from fights with militants hiding in Afghan houses so the battles do not kill civilians, a U.S. official said Monday.

The order would be one of the strongest measures taken by a U.S. commander to protect Afghan civilians in battle. American commanders say such deaths hurt their mission because they turn average Afghans against the government and U.S. and NATO forces.

Civilian casualties are a major source of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. The U.N. says U.S., NATO and Afghan forces killed 829 civilians in the Afghan war last year.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who took command of international forces in Afghanistan this month, has said his measure of effectiveness will be the “number of Afghans shielded from violence,” and not the number of militants killed.

McChrystal will issue orders within days saying troops may attack insurgents hiding in Afghan houses if the U.S. or NATO forces are in imminent danger and must return fire, said U.S. military spokesman Rear Adm. Greg Smith.

Wee Willy Keeler, the Hall of Fame batter, once said that the secret of hitting in baseball was to “hit ’em where they ain’t.”  Keeler was right about baseball.  I’m skeptical that the same approach can work against terrorists who exploit civilians for targets as well as shields.  If we retreat from urban confrontation, it seems to me that we concede ground in the fight against the Taliban, and provide greater incentives to them for using homes in Afghanistan and Pakistan as bases for their terrorist operations.

To be fair, though, McChrystal — and Barack Obama — are in a tough spot.  There is no doubt that our aggressive pursuit of Taliban terrorists in residential areas creates a big, big problem for the democratically-elected Karzai government.  Civilian deaths have increased, and with them anger at NATO and the potential for more radicalization.  We need more cooperation from Afghanis against the Taliban in order to get better targeting that would alleviate the problem, but we can’t get that while we’re alienating Afghanis through collateral killings.

It’s the basic conundrum of fighting terrorists.  How do you kill them without making more of them?  Donald Rumsfeld once called that the “known unknown,” and we can add to that the risk of Karzai’s government falling for one much less inclined to allow NATO to operate against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.  There are no easy answers, and McChrystal’s new plan may produce better overall results — but it still seems like a step backwards.  We should watch carefully as to how McChrystal plans to keep Taliban out of the cities to avoid having the problem in the first place — and I’d bet he has a plan to do just that.

Update: JD Johannes keeps his powder dry, and agrees that this could be more effective than what we’d previously done — depending on the actual wording in the order.