U.S. curtails use of airstrikes in assault on Marja

A look inside the partnership between U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers in an area in southern Afghanistan called Marja
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- To the Marines of Bravo Company, the black-and-white video footage from a surveillance drone seemed to present the perfect shot: more than a dozen armed insurgents exiting a building and heading to positions to attack U.S. and Afghan forces seeking to wrest control of this Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan.

Facing stiff resistance from Taliban fighters, the Marines radioed for permission to call in an airstrike on the insurgents at midday Monday. It appeared to be the sort of clear opportunity that would have prompted a rapidly executed bombing run during the Iraq war, or even in the first seven years of this conflict.

But not anymore: Officers at the Marine headquarters deemed the insurgents to be too close to a set of houses. In the new way the United States and its NATO allies are waging the Afghan war, dropping a bomb on or near a house is forbidden unless troops are in imminent danger of being overrun, or they can prove that no civilians are inside.

The rejection of Bravo's airstrike illuminates the challenges and complexity of waging a counterinsurgency mission that aims to protect Afghan civilians, while battling militants who appear determined to stand and fight for control of this farming district.

The issue has been brought into sharper relief because of the fierce fight the Marines have encountered in the first three days of their major offensive in Marja. Marines and their NATO and Afghan allies are facing heavy gunfire and deadly accurate sniper attacks from Taliban insurgents, who have seeded this area with scores of roadside bombs and set up a network of safe houses from which they are coordinating counterattacks on Marine units.

The Marines' caution in authorizing airstrikes also follows an incident Sunday in which 12 civilians, many of them children, were killed when U.S. missiles struck a house near Marja. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was "saddened" by the deaths, and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, expressed his regrets to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

On Monday, NATO officials said an airstrike, unrelated to the Marja operation, killed five civilians and wounded two others. They were mistakenly believed to be planting roadside bombs in Kandahar province.

"It seemed like a good target to us," Capt. Ryan Sparks, the commander of Bravo Company, which is part of the 1st Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment, said of the strike rejected by Marine headquarters on Monday. "We didn't see any civilians around."

Not seeing any civilians on a video feed from a drone or through one's rifle scope is no longer enough. Under a tactical directive McChrystal issued last summer, troops must verify that there are no civilians inside a house by watching it for at least 72 hours to establish a "pattern of life" before an airstrike will be authorized.

Civilian casualties had been a common feature of this war before McChrystal's arrival and had been sapping support among the Afghan population for the multinational military effort to combat the Taliban. McChrystal's directive, which has been lauded by Afghan leaders and some international human rights groups, has helped to reduce the number of Afghans killed or injured by NATO forces over the past seven months.

But the military operations in Marja and nearby areas -- the largest since the war began -- are the first big test of whether the new rules are feasible in intense fighting.

Some Marine commanders contend that insurgents in Marja understand what is now out of bounds and are using those bright lines to their advantage. Earlier Monday, the Marines from Bravo Company spotted a group of women and children carrying bundles, which they suspected to be weapons, to a safe house. Later on, the Marines said they saw a band of armed men darting in and out of a mosque, which is off-limits for bombing.

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