THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Strict rules slowing offensive, troops say

An Afghan soldier stood in front of burning gas tanks set on fire Sunday by Taliban fighters in Marja, where troops say they are fighting with a handicap due to strict rules of engagement. An Afghan soldier stood in front of burning gas tanks set on fire Sunday by Taliban fighters in Marja, where troops say they are fighting with a handicap due to strict rules of engagement. (Goran Tomasevic/ Reuters)
By Alfred de Montesquiou
Associated Press / February 16, 2010

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MARJA, 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, US 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 Corporal 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, US 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.

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 Corporal Michael Andrejczuk, 20, of Knoxville, Tenn., said yesterday. “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. The more important focus 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 Marja in Helmand province, the focal point of the operation involving 15,000 troops.

“The problem is isolating where the enemy is,’’ said Captain Joshua Winfrey, a Marine company commander from Stillwater, Okla. “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 Marja, fighter jets are flying at low altitude in a show of force, but are not firing missiles.

It was public outrage in Afghanistan over civilian deaths that prompted the top NATO commander, US General Stanley McChrystal, last year to tighten the rules, including the use of airstrikes and other weaponry if civilians are at risk.