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updated 6/25/2010 7:16:16 PM ET 2010-06-25T23:16:16

Crouched in a field of opium poppies, a young Marine lieutenant pleaded over the radio for an airstrike on a compound where he believed a sniper was firing at his troops. Request denied. Civilians might be inside and the Marines couldn't see a muzzle flash to be absolutely sure the gunman was there.

The lieutenant's frustration, witnessed by an Associated Press journalist in February in Marjah in southern Afghanistan, points to a Catch-22 dilemma facing the NATO force: how to protect troops against an enemy that lives — and fights — among the population without killing civilians and turning the people against the U.S.-led mission.

Those complaints from the ranks are among the issues facing Gen. David Petraeus — along with relations with a weak Afghan government and jittery allies; slow and uncertain progress on the battlefield; and frayed ties to the civilian side of the mission.

But among the most sensitive and important to the troops he commands and to supporters of the military at home will be whether to continue the rules laid down by his predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, that stress saving civilian lives but sometimes leave U.S. forces at greater risk.

Those rules, issued a year ago, helped make McChrystal a hero among many Afghans because they brought down the number of civilian casualties blamed on the NATO-led force. The rules were issued at a time of a rising tide of public anger over Afghan civilians killed by mistake in airstrikes and by heavy weapons such as cannons and mortars.

Down in the ranks, however, the rules are widely perceived as too restrictive, playing into the hands of the Taliban who appear keenly aware of the regulations. Some troops believe the rules cost American lives and force them to give up the advantage of overwhelming firepower to a foe who shoots and melts back into the civilian population.

At a Pentagon news conference Thursday, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hinted about possible changes in the rules when asked about troops who feel "they're being asked to fight with one hand tied behind their back."

"Any new commander, Gen. Petraeus included, will go in, assess his command, and what it is going to take to achieve the mission," Mullen said, adding that the general "certainly has the flexibility to make changes that he thinks are necessary."

But Mullen also said that doesn't "portend changes" in the rules. He noted that Petraeus, who was McChrystal's boss, is "very aware of the tactical directive" and was involved in approving it as commander of the U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The counterinsurgency strategy, which the military calls COIN, is based on protecting civilians and weaning them away from the insurgents.

According to a U.N. report, at least 2,412 civilians were killed last year — a 14 percent increase over 2008. But the percentage of those deaths caused by international and Afghan government forces dropped from 39 percent in 2008 to 25 percent last year, the U.N. said.

'Courageous Restraint'
The U.N. attributed much of that decrease to the directive issued by McChrystal, who was dismissed this week for disparaging remarks that he and his aides made about senior members of the Obama administration to Rolling Stone magazine.

"Winning hearts and minds in (counterinsurgency warfare) is a cold-blooded thing," McChrystal who was quoted in the article as telling an American soldier who expressed frustration about the rules. Trying to convince him, McChrystal said: "The Russians killed 1 million Afghans, and that didn't work."

To encourage that message, the command is considering presenting "Courageous Restraint Awards" to troops who displayed restraint in hostile situations.

"We routinely and systematically recognize valor, courage and effectiveness during kinetic combat operations," the command said in a recent statement. "In a COIN campaign, however, it is critical to also recognize that sometimes the most effective bullet is the bullet not fired."

The rules do not mean U.S. troops cannot rely on airpower, especially in the rugged east of the country where Taliban fighters are active but the population is smaller than in the agricultural areas of the ethnic Pashtun south — the main focus of the war.

'New set of attitudes'
On Wednesday, Air Force F-15E jets fired precision-guided missiles at insurgent positions in the eastern province of Kunar after gunmen attacked American ground troops, the Air Force said in a statement.

But the emphasis is on caution, and officers fear career damage if they mistakenly call for air or heavy weapons support and kill civilians in the process.

Last month, McChrystal reprimanded four American officers after an investigation found the rules were violated in a February airstrike that killed 23 Afghan civilians — including a woman and three children. Troops thought it was a Taliban convoy.

Pentagon analyst Anthony Cordesman said the strategy in Afghanistan is adjusted regularly to respond to changes on the battlefield. But Cordesman also noted that Petraeus has been deeply involved in all aspects of the war, including the rules of battle.

"Gen. Petraeus has been in the loop during the formulation of these, has been sitting in on weekly satellite conferences, has been part of most of the major monthly and quarterly reviews," Cordesman said. "So this is not somebody coming to this with a new set of attitudes."

In 2007, when he commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, Petraeus said in an interview with National Public Radio that counterinsurgency warfare is about "protecting the Iraqi population" so that "your actions don't create more enemies than you take off the streets." That requires balancing the protection of the population against the risks to American lives.

Nevertheless, soldiers and Marines trained to fight complain that the generals are out of touch with the situation on the battlefield.

The rules, many of them believe, give the advantage to the Taliban.

Although details of the rules are classified, troops say they cannot fire on a suspected militant unless he is presenting a clear threat. Troops say, for example, if a fighting-age man emerges from a building from which they are taking fire, the soldiers cannot fire at him unless he is armed or they personally saw him drop a weapon.

What this means, some troops say, is that a Taliban 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. Troops pinned down by insurgent bullets say they can't count on quick air support because it takes time to positively identify shooters.

During mop-up operations in Marjah in February, an AP reporter watched as Marines approached three military-age Afghan men standing near a motorcycle, the Taliban vehicle of choice. An old man insisted they were his sons, although all appeared to be the same age and did not resemble one another.

The Marines suspected they were Taliban who would fight them later. But the three were unarmed, so under the squad leader's interpretation of the rules, the Marines had no choice but to let them go.

Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann in Kabul contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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