We saw a while ago on this blog that a British general who had commanded forces in Afghanistan claimed in a TV interview that British forces use white phosphorus (WP) as a weapon in civilian areas. If true, this would surely be a war crime.
Recently, US forces were accused of using WP in its deadly bombing in the Bala Baluk district of Farah province. Subsequent investigations indicate, however, that that is unlikely. Yet now we have this from the New York Times' correspondent Christopher Chivers reporting from Korengal Valley:
Note that the action described by Chivers occurs in the morning, meaning the WP rounds were likely not used for illumination, which is considered a legal use of WP. Further, it seems unlikely that the WP rounds were being used for visual cover, which is also allowed under the law. Indeed Chivers writes that the soldiers "pounded" the ridge with mortars then WP, which doesn't sound like non-weapon use of WP. And while use of WP to mark targets for airstrikes is allowed, Chivers writes that the soldiers "escalated" to airstrikes after the initial attack, meaning that targeting was not the purpose of firing the WP rounds.
The morning after the sweep, the soldiers gathered outside. A pair of boots, a helmet and a rifle had been arranged before an American flag. Dog tags hung from the rifle. They bore the name of Pfc. Richard Dewater, 21, who had been killed by a bomb hidden on a trail...
After the ceremony, the violence resumed. The soldiers detected a Taliban spotter on a ridge, which was pounded with mortars and then white phosphorus rounds from a 155-millimeter howitzer.
What did the insurgents do? When the smoldering subsided, they attacked from exactly the same spot, shelling the outpost with 30 millimeter grenades and putting the soldiers on notice that the last display of firepower had little effect. The Americans escalated. An A-10 aircraft made several gun runs, then dropped a 500-pound bomb... (link)
Here is the US policy from the horse's mouth (i.e. Combined Joint Task Force 101):
White phosphorus is appropriately employed for screening of troop movements, marking targets, illumination, as well as destruction of unoccupied bunkers, buildings and weapons systems, and the demolition of otherwise flammable materials such as ammo and petroleum products.Elsewhere, a senior official told CNN: "It is U.S. military policy to employ white phosphorous for illumination, marking targets or destroying buildings, but to abstain from using it against people." The same CNN article carries a photo (reproduced nearby) dated Oct 28, 2008 of white phosphorus in use with a caption which states "U.S. mortars using white phosphorous target Taliban".
WP is used as a smoke-producing agent common to the arsenals of many nations, and is classified as conventional ordnance. It is not designed for use against personnel. ISAF employs white phosphorus in accordance with theatre rules of engagement and international law. (link)
As for the legality of the use of WP as a weapon, here is an excerpt from a BBC report a couple of years ago:
[Chemical] weapons are outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to which the United States is a party.
The CWC is monitored by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague. Its spokesman Peter Kaiser was asked if WP was banned by the CWC and he had this to say:
"No it's not forbidden by the CWC if it is used within the context of a military application which does not require or does not intend to use the toxic properties of white phosphorus. White phosphorus is normally used to produce smoke, to camouflage movement.
"If that is the purpose for which the white phosphorus is used, then that is considered under the Convention legitimate use.
"If on the other hand the toxic properties of white phosphorus, the caustic properties, are specifically intended to be used as a weapon, that of course is prohibited, because the way the Convention is structured or the way it is in fact applied, any chemicals used against humans or animals that cause harm or death through the toxic properties of the chemical are considered chemical weapons." ... (link)