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Troops hone artillery skills to cut Afghan deaths

Soldiers headed for Afghanistan are getting new training on when to use high-powered weapons as the U.S. looks to reduce civilian deaths.
Image: Soldiers fire mortars
Soldiers fire mortars during training at Fort Campbell, Ky. The 1st Brigade Combat Team is preparing for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan, and its training is going beyond using high-powered weapons like mortars and aerial bombs to fight an entrenched enemy. Mark Humphrey / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Deep in the woods on the Kentucky-Tennessee line, infantrymen headed for Afghanistan are honing their precision with powerful weapons like mortars in a key element of the American military's new mandate to reduce civilian deaths.

The directive to curb civilian casualties, being pushed down the ranks from colonel to private, is what has three soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division lying on their bellies atop a berm on a forested Fort Campbell artillery range. A pair of Kiowa OH-58 helicopters circle around to the right to scout the enemy's position, which in this training is an empty bunker surrounded by razor wire.

Mortars start whistling over the tree line and down toward an open field behind the bunker where a couple of old Army tanks painted bright yellow help artillery men precisely place the shots. The soldiers on the berm watch the rounds kick up clouds of dirt and rock, and a fraction of a second later, the sounds of the explosions echo back.

The 1st Brigade Combat Team is preparing for deployment to Afghanistan, and its training is going beyond using high-powered weapons like mortars and aerial bombs to fight an entrenched enemy. A new directive to avoid civilian casualties is being pushed down the ranks from colonel to private through drills on how to get close enough to thoroughly assess situations and carefully gauge the impact of every weapon.

New rules being incorporated
For several weeks, the brigade has been focusing on advanced artillery training that incorporates the new rules.

"All planning is based on where you can shoot and where you can't shoot," said Lt. Col. Randy Harris, the deputy commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team.

"Of course the enemy has a vote on that as well," he noted.

The Taliban and the insurgent fighters in Afghanistan "hug the population because they understand the side effects," said Lt. Col. Douglas Vincent of 1st Battalion, 32nd Cavalry Regiment, the brigade's reconnaissance group. "They know by doing that they put the civilian population at risk."

The brigade has deployed three times to Iraq, where airstrikes have drastically decreased from last year. But in Afghanistan, rough mountainous terrain and the lack of adequate roads mean ground forces need more assistance from the air.

According to the Air Force, the number of rockets, bombs and strafing runs in Afghanistan totaled nearly 1,200 compared to just four in Iraq this summer. Still, that's down nearly 50 percent from last summer in Afghanistan.

Many of Fort Campbell's units are staging large-scale weapons exercises with the Air Force through the rest of this year to better prepare. Mortars and bombs are capable of razing large areas and inflicting serious injury, so soldiers learn to carefully observe the enemy and the battlefield before pulling the trigger.

‘This is the place to do it’
New platoon leader 1st Lt. Jonathan Fuller, 23, spends most of the morning inside a tent near the artillery range studying photos and maps of the terrain. He leads his platoon on a dry run of the battle, without using ammunition, then runs it with live fire and a third time after nightfall using night-vision goggles. Each time he and his commanders extensively review what went wrong and what went right.

"It's nice to run through here, when you have the chance to say, 'Hey stop, let's go fix this, let's go back and do it again,'" said Vincent, one of Fuller's commanders. "This is the place to do it, not when you're in some foreign country."

The training teaches platoon leaders how to move soldiers around a battlefield while using air support and heavy artillery.

The bunker they are targeting is surrounded by razor wire and guarded by green dummies and an air gun, triggered by remote control to simulate enemy fire. Fuller has to get his soldiers close enough to see the enemy hidden in the bunker without also putting his troops at risk.

He gives the order to toss a couple of smoke bombs toward the bunker to conceal engineers trying to find a way through the razor wire. The wind pushes the smoke in the wrong direction, slightly delaying the attack.

The engineers hustle forward to set up a Bangalore torpedo, an explosive device that dates to World War II but is still valuable for clearing mines or wire. With sight limited by the thick green smoke hanging like fog, Fuller shouts at his soldiers to take cover. "Get off the berm! Hey, keep your heads down!"

As mortars continue to drop far out in the field, the Bangalore torpedo blows a hole about 5 feet deep and as wide as a small car in front of the bunker. The targeted explosion allows the soldiers to move close enough to clear the bunker with a few shots and end the mission.

NATO troop deaths at all-time high
The number of NATO troop deaths in Afghanistan has reached an all-time high year, raising questions about whether the emphasis placed on restraint is risking the lives of soldiers. When the current commanding officer in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, issued the directive earlier this year, he acknowledged it "entails risk to our troops." But alienating the Afghan population is a far greater risk, he said.

Defense analysts say the efforts to curb civilian casualties doesn't account for the rise in troop deaths.

"If you look at how soldiers are dying, it's not because of a lack of airstrikes," said Micah Zenko, a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, who noted that many troop deaths are caused by ambushes and roadside bombs.

Despite the restraint, civilian casualties also have been climbing, up to 202 in September from 169 in August, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press. The civilian deaths could be attributed to stepped up Taliban attacks.

The 101st Airborne commanders who will go to Afghanistan say they have embraced the mission to limit casualties, even if it makes their jobs more dangerous.

"The center of gravity is the people and the population," Vincent said, "and anything that goes counter to that is obviously working against your mission."