KABUL (Reuters) -- NATO has ordered its troops in Afghanistan to pull back from firefights with the Taliban rather than call in air strikes that might kill civilians, Afghan and NATO officials said.
Violence in Afghanistan this year is worse than at any time since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the militant Islamist Taliban in 2001 and fears are growing the West is losing both the military campaign and the support of ordinary Afghans.
The insurgents have intensified their campaign and extended it to previously peaceful areas, capitalizing on resentment at the presence of foreign forces who many feel use air power indiscriminately, endangering civilians.
NATO defense ministers endorsed the restriction at a summit in Budapest last week after three U.S. air strikes killed more than 100 Afghan civilians in the three months.
"All agreed that civilian casualties earn a bad name for both the Afghan government and the presence of international troops in Afghanistan," Defense Minister Abdul Raheem Wardak told a news conference in Kabul after returning from the NATO summit.Drop In Air Strikes
If there is a risk to civilians, troops have now been ordered to withdraw if they can, rather than order bombings that would earn a short-term victory but boost Taliban opponents in the longer term.
That should lead to a drop in the number of air strikes, which are up sharply from last year, said a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
ISAF chief U.S. General David McKiernan has also told his officers that as far as possible all operations should be conducted alongside Afghan forces, an ISAF spokesman said.
Raids by foreign forces on homes and mosques are a major source of resentment against the more than 60,000 ISAF and U.S.-led coalition troops in Afghanistan.
"There will be no uninvited entry into an Afghan house or a mosque without having the lead from the Afghan Army unless there is a clear danger that comes from that house," said ISAF spokesman Brigadier General Richard Blanchette.
More Foreign Fighters
With no end in sight to the war, the United States military is conducting a wide-ranging review of its Afghan strategy.
Without radical improvements in the way the military operates, coupled with better rule by President Hamid Karzai's administration and a real effort to tackle rampant corruption, NATO could face defeat in Afghanistan, analysts say.
Defense Minister Wardak acknowledged that this year was the most violent in Afghanistan since 2001 and blamed a flow of foreign fighters now no longer able to operate in Iraq.
Foreign militants were better equipped and trained than their local Afghan Taliban allies, he said, accounting for the increase in violence.
NATO has blamed foreign fighters and growing instability in neighboring Pakistan for a 40 percent increase in Taliban attacks this year.
Recent Pakistani Army operations against Taliban militants on the eastern side of the border have not had an impact on violence in Afghanistan, a presidential spokesman said.
"We hope that it is a serious and honest operation against terrorism, not only on their soil but also to prevent crossborder attacks," Humayun Hamidzada told reporters.