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In Afghanistan, Coalition on Track for Another Deadly Record

July 14, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: U.S. forces in Afghanistan added eight more names to the killed in action list today. It was the latest sign of the escalating war, as American commanders struggle to adapt.

The first strike came in Kandahar, three Americans killed last night in a car bombing and gunfight at an Afghan police headquarters, then, this morning, four more U.S. troops killed in a roadside bombing elsewhere in the south, and a fifth shot dead. And three British soldiers died Tuesday, when an Afghan soldier attacked them with gunfire and a rocket-propelled grenade in Helmand Province.

British Brigadier Nick Parker is the deputy NATO commander in Afghanistan.

BRIGADIER NICK PARKER, deputy NATO commander, International Security Assistance Force: Our Afghan partners have got to look very carefully at what’s happened, and they have got to reassure us that they’re doing everything they can to minimize it happening again.

JIM LEHRER: In all, 45 NATO troops have been killed so far this month, 33 of them Americans, as fighting intensifies in the south and the east.

That’s on track to top the record of 60 U.S. deaths in June. Overall, roadside bombs now cause up to 60 percent of combat deaths, and car bombings are also taking a toll. In fact, the Kandahar attack resembled recent assaults on much larger American-run airfields at Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border, and Bagram, just north of Kabul.

With violence peaking, the rules of engagement for NATO forces have become a particular flash point. Recently relieved U.S. Commander Stanley McChrystal had instituted tight new standards to lessen civilian casualties.

The vast majority of civilians are killed by insurgents, but coalition killings bring routine and widespread condemnation from President Karzai, on down to the streets, as seen this past weekend in Mazar-e-Sharif,.

NASSIM ZAHEER, Afghanistan (through translator): Foreign forces have carried out an operation, and they have killed two civilians and arrested three others. That is why we are out here demonstrating against them.

JIM LEHRER: Coalition-caused civilian deaths have declined, but McChrystal’s rules also led to resentment in the ranks. Troops said they increasingly found themselves with fewer options to respond and to repel danger. The new NATO commander, General David Petraeus, underscored the core tenet of counterinsurgency warfare in Brussels shortly after being appointed.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, commander, International Security Assistance Force: The human terrain is the decisive terrain. And, therefore, you must do everything humanly possible to protect the population.

JIM LEHRER: Petraeus said the rules of engagement would not be revised, but he did acknowledge the hard standard they demand.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: There are concerns among the ranks of some of our troopers on the ground that some of the processes have become a bit too bureaucratic.

JIM LEHRER: Those concerns were borne out recently in reporting by James Foley of GlobalPost. He talked to soldiers in the volatile Kunar Province by the Pakistani border.

STAFF SGT. TREVOR PETSCH, A Company, 173rd Airborne: We’re infantry guys, and we’re trained to count our victories with the number of bodies that we clean up afterwards. It’s kind of a vulgar way to put it, but it’s the truth of it. And we’re kind of out of our element.

JIM LEHRER: The core of these fighting units are the sergeants who run their squads and who routinely update their soldiers on the rules of engagement.

MAN: If you feel like you life is in danger or the life of your buddies are in danger, engage. You know what I’m saying? But you got to use your escalation of force.

JIM LEHRER: The nature of counterinsurgency, called COIN in shorthand, is trying to separate the enemy from the people. And it is inherently difficult, complex, and not a little frustrating to the troops carrying it out.

STAFF SGT. SETH TAYLOR, A Company, 173rd Airborne: When you destroy fighters, it makes you feel like you have accomplished something. It’s very hard to feel like you have accomplished something in the COIN fight, because it takes so long to accomplish that task, that minuscule task of winning one individual over to your side.

JIM LEHRER: To help accomplish that task, the Afghan government today approved an initiative pushed by General Petraeus, to establish community police forces. The groups would be empowered to patrol their own villages.

In Washington today, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the need was urgent.

GEOFF MORRELL, Pentagon spokesperson: This is temporary solution to very real near-term problem. This would just be a stopgap measure, or at least that’s how it is envisioned at this point, because we clearly don’t have enough police forces to provide security in as — in enough of the populated areas.

JIM LEHRER: Morrell also placed the effort in the larger context of the U.S.-led counterinsurgency.

GEOFF MORRELL: The onus is on us, even to protect them from the Taliban. So, we have to work doubly hard, not just to win their trust and confidence, but protect them. And so there is a real risk to those who step up in Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: A top American commander in Southern Afghanistan said today security will improve as more U.S. and Afghan forces move into violent areas. He said, it’s a rising tide.