Petraeus will face complaints over rules to protect civilians
KABUL, Afghanistan — Crouched in a field of opium poppies, a young Marine lieutenant pleaded over the radio for an air strike on a compound where he believed a sniper was firing at his troops. Request denied. Civilians might be inside and the Marines could not 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 US-led mission.
Those complaints from the ranks are among the issues facing General 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, General Stanley McChrystal, that emphasize saving civilian lives but sometimes leave US 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 air strikes 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 press conference Thursday, Admiral 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, General 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 does not “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 US Central Command, which is responsible for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Meanwhile, four US troops were reported killed and the bodies of 11 men, some beheaded, were found yesterday in rising violence across Afghanistan.
Mohammad Khan, deputy police chief in Uruzgan Province, said a villager in the Bagh Char area of Khas Uruzgan district spotted the bodies in a field and called police.
“They were killed because the Taliban said they were spying for the government, working for the government,’’ he said.
NATO reported that a US service member was killed in an insurgent attack yesterday in eastern Afghanistan and another American died after a roadside bombing in southern Afghanistan on Thursday. NATO did not provide the exact location of the attacks.
A fourth service member died in an explosion yesterday in southern Afghanistan, NATO said. The US command said he was American.
Their deaths brought to 84 the number of international service members killed so far in June, which is already the deadliest month of the nearly 9-year-old war. At least 49 were American.
The counterinsurgency strategy, which the military calls COIN, is based on protecting civilians and weaning them away from the insurgents.