Rules Of Engagement Are A Dilemma For U.S. Troops

As part of the new American counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, soldiers and Marines must work first to protect the Afghan population. Given the choice between killing the enemy or risking civilian lives, they have been willing to let the enemy go. NPR's Tom Bowman was in Afghanistan earlier this year and witnessed troops grappling with the dilemma of whether to shoot.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Next, we have a story that underlines the difficulty of fighting a war amid a civilian population. It's the story of U.S. Marines who had Afghans in their gun sights, Afghans who looked like they might be planting a bomb. The Marines had to decide whether to pull the trigger. Their decision says a lot about the rules of war against insurgents in Afghanistan.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman watched the story unfold during a recent visit to the country, and he joins us now to talk about it. Hello.

TOM BOWMAN: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now the rules of engagement have changed lately for troops in Afghanistan.

BOWMAN: That's right. General Stanley McChrystal, the overall commander there, tightened up these rules on when soldiers can fire. And he did this because there was - there were too many civilian casualties in Afghanistan. But this all illustrates the basic dilemma for U.S. troops. They want to kill insurgents who are trying to kill them, but their job is to make sure they only fire when they're very sure of their targets.

MONTAGNE: So, Tom, tell us what it was that you saw?

BOWMAN: Well, Renee, we were in this combat outpost down in southern Afghanistan, in the Helmand River Valley, and we were inside this center, a command center, watching a video screen. They were watching live while these guys were digging a hole for a roadside bomb. And there were other indicators, too, besides digging the hole. There was a guy swimming across a canal with this wire, and the wires are used to detonate the bomb.

Unidentified Man #1: I have two guys on the west side of the cow buoys(ph) running wires across the canal to the west side, where a (unintelligible) an IED the other day. So, they're watching them right now.

BOWMAN: There were a couple of guys keeping watch and stopping traffic. And the Marines were intercepting a radio call from these suspected insurgents while they were doing these other activities.

MONTAGNE: And on the radio, they were saying we're planting a bomb?

BOWMAN: And on the radio they were talking about planting a bomb.

MONTAGNE: So from the Marines perspective, the Afghans really did appear to be insurgents. So what did they do?

BOWMAN: Well, they felt comfortable. They had all the indicators that these guys were insurgents planting a bomb. So they thought about using a machine gun to shoot these guys. There was another combat outpost not too far away. The problem was there was a compound of houses between where the Marines were with their machine gun and the guys planting the bomb.

So then they decided to bring in the helicopters and use the machines guns and the helicopters to shoot these guys. As the helicopters came in, these guys look up in the air and start walking away. One of the guys was carrying a yellow jug - and that's become the icon of the roadside bomb. They mix fertilizer and diesel fuel in this, and that becomes a part of the bomb. And then we saw one of these guys throw this jug into a haystack.

Unidentified Man #2: And hiding the jug into the hay pile right now, and then are walking near the open field, so just wait until...

BOWMAN: And they were gone. It was all over. They could no longer shoot at them.

MONTAGNE: So why didn't they shoot at them?

BOWMAN: Well, they thought that they were still too close to this compound of houses to allow these helicopters to use their machine guns to shoot, so they decided against it.

MONTAGNE: So, in being very, very careful about shooting at what they absolutely believed to be insurgents, they ended up, in effect, losing these guys. How did that make them feel?

BOWMAN: Well, they weren't happy at all. And some of them stormed out of this command center. And we talked with one of them afterwards. This is Lieutenant James Wendy(ph).

Lieutenant JAMES WENDY (U.S. Marines): There's no way that anyone other than the enemy would've been injured.

BOWMAN: So, why weren't you allowed to shoot?

Lt. WENDY: Honestly, I don't know. I'd like to say I wish we could play by the big boy rules, you know, but, you know, it's just the way it is. And if I had known how frustrating it'd be and was able to better prepare myself for that mentally, I think that maybe I would've been better off.

MONTAGNE: What about the military leaders? Is it reaching the top? Are they hearing these complaints about these rules of engagement that are so restrictive?

BOWMAN: You know, they are hearing these complaints. And I had a few minutes this week with their overall commander, General McChrystal, and I told him the same story, Renee, I told you. And I asked him about the rules of engagement. Here's what he had to say:

General STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL (U.S. Commander, Afghanistan): I've been at this a long time now, since 9/11, and there were a tremendous number of times when I've seen activities done, which, on the surface of what was seen, looks exactly one way, looks completely convincing. And then in the aftermath, what you saw was incomplete. In fact, what we find is civilian casualties who are unarmed civilians.

I think when we err on the side of maturity and caution, there is a cost. And I know that we're asking an extraordinary amount from them to operate with such restraint and self-discipline, but I think it's how we win the war.

BOWMAN: So, that being said, there's still a widespread frustration among the troops, of feeling that their hands are tied in going after insurgents.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee.

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