MARJAH, Afghanistan — Some American and Afghan troops say they're fighting the latest offensive in Afghanistan with a handicap — strict rules that routinely force them to hold their fire.
Although details of the new guidelines are classified to keep insurgents from reading them, U.S. troops say the Taliban are keenly aware of the restrictions.
"I understand the reason behind it, but it's so hard to fight a war like this," said Lance Cpl. Travis Anderson, 20, of Altoona, Iowa. "They're using our rules of engagement against us," he said, adding that his platoon had repeatedly seen men drop their guns into ditches and walk away to blend in with civilians.
If a man emerges from a Taliban hideout after shooting erupts, U.S. troops say they cannot fire at him if he is not seen carrying a weapon — or if they did not personally watch him drop one.
No quick air support
What this means, some contend, is that a militant can fire at them, then set aside his weapon and walk freely out of a compound, possibly toward a weapons cache in another location. It was unclear how often this has happened. In another example, Marines pinned down by a barrage of insurgent bullets say they can't count on quick air support because it takes time to positively identify shooters.
"This is difficult," Lance Cpl. Michael Andrejczuk, 20, of Knoxville, Tenn., said Monday. "We are trained like when we see something, we obliterate it. But here, we have to see them and when we do, they don't have guns."
NATO and Afghan military officials say killing militants is not the goal of a 3-day-old attack to take control of this Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. More important is to win public support.
They acknowledge that the rules entail risk to its troops, but maintain that civilian casualties or destruction of property can alienate the population and lead to more insurgent recruits, more homemade bombs and a prolonged conflict.
But troops complain that strict rules of engagement — imposed to spare civilian casualties — are slowing their advance into the town of Marjah in Helmand province, the focal point of the operation involving 15,000 troops.
"The problem is isolating where the enemy is," said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, a Marine company commander from Stillwater, Oklahoma. "We are not going to drop ordnance out in the open."
That's a marked change from the battle of Fallujah, Iraq in November 2004. When Marines there encountered snipers holed up in a building, they routinely called in airstrikes. In Marjah, fighter jets are flying at low altitude in a show of force, but are not firing missiles.
Slideshow: Operation Moshtarak
Civilians killed by airstrikes
Politically, it's not the best time to campaign for relaxing the rules in Afghanistan. On Sunday, two U.S. rockets struck a house and killed 12 Afghan civilians during the offensive in Marjah, NATO said. On Monday, a NATO airstrike accidentally killed five civilians and wounded two in neighboring Kandahar province.
Civilians killed by airstrikes
It was public outrage in Afghanistan over civilian deaths that prompted the top NATO commander, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, last year to tighten the rules, including the use of airstrikes and other weaponry if civilians are at risk.
Afghan civilian deaths soared to 2,412 civilians last year — the highest number in any year of the 8-year-old war, according to a U.N. report. But the deaths attributed to allied troops dropped nearly 30 percent as a result of McChrystal's new rules, according to the report.
Under the current rules of engagement, troops retain the right to use lethal force in self defense, said U.S. Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for the international force.
The rules seek to put the troops in the "right frame of mind to exercise that right," Shanks said. They require troops to ask a few fundamental questions:
- Even if someone has shot in my general direction, am I still in danger?
- Will I make more enemies than I'll kill by destroying property, or harming innocent civilians?
- What are my other options to resolve this without escalating the violence?
On Monday, Marines in the northern part of Marjah followed the rules of engagement, but a civilian still ended up dead.
As troops fought teams of insurgent snipers throughout the day in heavy gunfights, a young Afghan man ran toward the Marines. More than once, the troops warned him to stop, but he kept running.
Following the rules, the Marines uttered a verbal warning, and fired a flare and a warning shot overhead. Still the man didn't stop. Marines shot him dead.
Man panicked during the gun battle
Afterward, Marine officers said the victim appeared to be a mentally ill man who had panicked during the gun battle.
"Sadly, everything was done right," said Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines. "The family understood."
Christmas said his troops might be frustrated, but understand the reasons behind the strict rules. As he spoke, Cobra attack helicopters fired Hellfire missiles nearby. Ground forces under intense fire had requested the air support 90 minutes earlier, but it took that long to positively identify the militants who were shooting at the allied forces.
"We didn't come to Marjah to destroy it, or to hurt civilians," Christmas said.
That message was drilled into the troops in the run-up to the offensive.
"What are we here for?" Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the top Marine commander in Afghanistan, would shout to his troops.
"The people!" was the troops' refrain.
Afghan forces cite examples of the restrictions too.
Col. Shrin Shah Kohbandi, commander of the new Afghan army corps in Helmand province, told reporters that his troops saw militants running away from the battlefield toward a village in Nad Ali district where they disappeared among villagers. "They hid their weapons so they became 'civilians,'" under the rules, he said. "We didn't kill them and we weren't able to arrest them."
Khan Mohammad Khan, a former Afghan Army commander in neighboring Kandahar province, said being able to use heavy weapons and conduct air strikes only in selective situations has hamstrung troops in Marjah.
But Brig. Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai, commander of Afghan army troops in the south, said there is no plan to revise the rules.
"The aim of the operation is not to kill militants," he said. "The aim is to protect civilians and bring in development."
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