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Rising U.S. Toll in Afghanistan Stirs Unease on Hill, Among Families

A service member pays his respects during graveside services for Army 1st Lt. David Wright II at a cemetery in Norman, Okla. Wright was killed Sept. 14 by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
A service member pays his respects during graveside services for Army 1st Lt. David Wright II at a cemetery in Norman, Okla. Wright was killed Sept. 14 by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. (By Chris Landsberger -- Associated Press)

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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Concern is rising in Congress and among military families over a sharp increase in U.S. troop deaths in Afghanistan at a time when senior military officials acknowledge that American service members are facing greater risks under a new strategy that emphasizes protecting Afghan civilians.

On July 2, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, issued a directive restricting the military's use of airstrikes and artillery bombardments. In July and August, the number of Afghan civilians killed by coalition forces was 19, compared with 151 for the same two months last year.

Over the same period, U.S. troop deaths in the war more than doubled -- 96 this year, compared with 42 last year -- prompting worries that McChrystal's constraints and other tactical changes are creating advantages for a resurgent Taliban. Of the deaths this year, about a third are known to be from roadside bombs, and about 21 troops were killed in attacks involving small-arms fire or grenades and in some cases bombs, according to the Defense Department. The cause of death for another third is listed by the military only as combat operations, while the rest died from nonhostile incidents, airplane crashes or other causes.

McChrystal, in a major assessment disclosed by The Washington Post on Monday, castigated the U.S. military in Afghanistan for being "preoccupied with protection of our own forces." He wrote that U.S. and other military personnel must minimize their time in armored vehicles and walled bases and "share risk, at least equally, with the people." McChrystal also called for coalition troops to "radically increase" joint operations with Afghan forces. Both steps, he said, mean greater risk for coalition troops in the near term but could "ultimately save lives in the long run."

Members of Congress have voiced concern about the increase in U.S. deaths, one of the factors behind growing public dissatisfaction with the war. President Obama and his national security advisers are considering McChrystal's assessment, which calls for intensifying the counterinsurgency strategy and dispatching additional forces, among other options.

"I am troubled if we are putting our troops at greater risk in order to go to such extremes to avoid Afghan casualties," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who at a hearing last week urged Pentagon leaders to determine whether new rules of engagement -- the classified directives that guide the use of force -- are unnecessarily endangering U.S. troops.

As military operations intensified in Afghanistan this summer, the number of times that coalition troops came under fire increased more than 30 percent compared with the summer of 2008, but the number of air munitions used fell by nearly 50 percent, according to Air Force data. When troops are in firefights, warplanes often shoot flares or fly low in a "show of force" to temporarily frighten insurgents away.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, have also acknowledged recently that the new strategy has elevated the risk for U.S. troops.

Gates, in a television interview this month, said that McChrystal "has changed the rules in terms of air power. He has issued a directive that convoys obey Afghan traffic laws and, in fact, that our troops take some additional risk to themselves to avoid innocent Afghan casualties."

Mullen, in response to a question from Collins last week, said he expects that protecting civilians will eventually help reduce U.S. military casualties. But he added: "That doesn't mean that risk isn't up higher now, given the challenges that we have and the direction that McChrystal has laid out."

Collins asked Mullen, in particular, to respond to a letter she received in July from retired Marine Corps 1st Sgt. John Bernard, whose son was serving in the restive southern province of Helmand. In the letter, Bernard criticizes McChrystal's rules of engagement, calling them "nothing less than disgraceful, immoral and fatal for our Marines, sailors and soldiers on the ground."

"The Marines and soldiers that are 'holding' territories of dubious worth like Now Zad and Golestan without reinforcement, denial of fire-support and refusal to allow them to hunt and kill the very enemy we are there to confront are nothing more than sitting ducks," Bernard wrote. He denounced "the insanity of the current situation and the suicidal position this administration has placed these warriors in."

A month after Bernard wrote to Collins, his son, Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard, was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade when Taliban insurgents ambushed his platoon. Bernard said that in one of his last phone calls from Afghanistan, his son had complained that his unit had been denied supporting fire and that Marines had been wounded.

"They are in between a rock and a hard place, with minimal support and maximum exposure," Bernard said in a telephone interview. "With 175 guys there and then to be denied fire missions is inexplicable," he said, describing his son's company, stationed near the Taliban sanctuary of Now Zad in Helmand. "We've hamstrung ourselves in fear of angering a population that hates us anyway."

Collins, who attended Joshua Bernard's funeral, said she supports the goal of protecting Afghan civilians. But, she said in an interview, "there is a tipping point."

"We know our troops are at great risk, but after a point, when you are asking them to be so cautious in their approach that you almost guarantee they will incur wounds or even be killed when they wouldn't have been, that's hard to accept," she said.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said he had similar concerns based on recent conversations with an Army colonel who served in Vietnam. "You know, we're engaged or we're not. We're not halfway in," Begich told Mullen.

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview that he expects the panel to hear back from Mullen. "We will find out if there is a systemic issue there," he said.

A multitude of factors contribute to U.S. troop casualties, including the aggressiveness of military operations, the experience of the troops, intelligence, terrain, equipment, and insurgent tactics and weaponry. But by designating the use of air power and artillery against Afghan compounds a measure of last resort, McChrystal's directive suggests that more Taliban fighters who take shelter among Afghan civilians will survive.

McChrystal's logic, based on core counterinsurgency doctrine, is that by safeguarding civilians and gradually winning over the population, the coalition can eventually reap the intelligence and local cooperation vital to rooting out insurgents and stabilizing an area. If winning tactical battles means killing civilians, he argues in the assessment, "we run the risk of strategic defeat."

In the interim, however, coalition forces must face residents who are often wary, if not hostile, while working with Afghan security forces that are sometimes unreliable. For example, in an incident Sept. 8 in the eastern province of Konar, four U.S. Marines on a training team working with Afghan troops were killed in an insurgent ambush as their unit called for but was initially unable to obtain air or artillery support, according to family members and media reports from the scene.

"We heard they held back artillery. We also heard that as far as they were concerned, there were women and children feeding them [insurgents] ammunition," said a relative of one of the Marines killed. The family is "going to be asking a lot of questions" about the incident, said the relative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of slowing efforts to find out more from the military about the circumstances of the death.

In Afghanistan, some U.S. commanders and troops say insurgents are taking advantage of the new rules, fighting from Afghan homes and moving unarmed between fighting positions. As thousands of Marines pushed into Taliban-held regions of Helmand in July soon after McChrystal issued his directive, Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss, commander of 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, remarked that the Taliban "know the directive better than we do."


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