By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; A01
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.
"It's a frustration and a challenge," said Bravo's battalion commander, Lt. Col. Cal Worth. "The enemy has read the tactical directive and he understands it. He knows our rules of engagement."
The Marines did not want to strike at the women and children, nor did they want to hit the mosque. But they reasoned that striking the fighters in the open, even if there might be some damage to homes, would ultimately be better -- and safer -- than fighting house-to-house to flush out the insurgents.
"Now we're going to have to clear the compounds one by one, and that increases the risk, potentially even to civilians in the area," Worth said.
Even so, he said he understands McChrystal's reasoning. "A professional fighting force need to assume the preponderance of risk," he said. "That's the way it should be in a counterinsurgency."
After arriving by helicopters early Saturday, Bravo Company has largely been holed up in a mud-and-brick compound, located in the central bazaar area, that had been used as a drug-processing and bomb-manufacturing facility.
Although the Marines have set up heavy machine guns on the roof and guard posts along the street, they are shot at by insurgents multiple times a day. Usually it is just bullets fired by an AK-47, but occasionally a rocket-propelled grenade will come zipping over the wall.
"We're fighting an offense from a defense," said Lt. Mark Greenlief, Bravo Company's executive officer.
Many of Bravo's Marines have been in Afghanistan before -- in the volatile Garmser district of Helmand province in 2008. Greenlief said the fighting encountered then was nothing like what they have seen in Marja.
"These guys are much, much better," he said. "This is a much more dangerous environment."
The rejected request for an airstrike began late Monday morning, when company officers observed the women and children walking across a field toward a compound regarded by the Marines to be a Taliban command post. After they left, about a dozen armed men emerged and began walking down a small irrigation ditch. The Marines assumed the men were heading to nearby buildings, from which they would shoot at Bravo's base.
Sparks decided to call for a drone or a helicopter to fire a laser-guided Hellfire missile at the men. But by the time his request was radioed up the chain of command, the men had moved near to a cluster of houses.
"Do not engage," the operations officer from the Marine regimental command headquarters radioed. "They're too close to a compound that we don't know anything about."
"Roger. Understood," Worth said. "Mission denied."
"Now," he said to the occupants of his truck as it headed to the Bravo base, "we have to wait for them to attack us."
Less than an hour later, the base came under fire. This time, Sparks directed a platoon to move north for a quarter-mile to try to ambush the insurgents from the other side of the street. The Marine offensive led the fighters to regroup behind a cluster of buildings -- far enough away to become a legitimate target. But when the Hellfire-equipped drone appeared overhead, it malfunctioned and could not fire a missile.
The fighting continued, and the Marines once again sought to push the insurgents back into an area where they could be targeted from above. It worked, and moments later an AV-8B Harrier jet roared overhead, its 30mm cannon thumping away. After two strafing runs, nine insurgents lay dead.
But the most lethal opponent remained at large: a sniper with excellent aim, armed with what the Marines believe to be a high-powered rifle with a sound-suppression device.
On Saturday, the sniper shot and killed a Marine from Bravo Company by aiming at a part of his chest that was not covered with a ballistic plate. On Sunday, the sniper shot another Marine in the shoulder. The bullet pierced the left ventricle of his heart, but he survived.
On Monday, the sniper's target was Lance Cpl. Andrew Koenig, 21, of Casper, Wyo., who survived three roadside bomb attacks during his stint in Helmand in 2008. He was manning the north observation post when he was shot in the head. The bullet him directly between the temples, but it caught the bottom part of his Kevlar helmet.
He wound up with a round hole on the surface of his helmet, which his fellow Marines gawked at with amazement, and a nasty headache.
"I don't think I could have gotten any luckier," he said with a smile. A few hours later, he returned to his position atop the observation post.