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In Afghanistan, Civilian Casualties Draw Sharp Criticism

February 22, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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As civilian deaths mount in the fight against the Taliban, Afghan officials say they need better communication with NATO troops. Margaret Warner talks to a Wall Street Journal reporter about tensions after an airstrike killed civilians Sunday.
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on yesterday’s incident, we turn to Yochi Dreazen, military correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.

Yochi, welcome back to the program.

What more have you learned about the circumstances around yesterday’s airstrike?

YOCHI DREAZEN, The Wall Street Journal: Thank you very much for having me back on.

What we’re hearing is that this airstrike wasn’t called in by the Dutch troops, who typically operate in that region, but was instead called in by Americans, by American special operation forces. These are the most elite of the U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan.

They often pursue a narrow counterterror mission, trying to capture or kill individual Taliban leaders or other terrorists. What we’re hearing is that it was these forces who called in the strike, which complicates the issue considerably, because it becomes an issue not of what did other NATO partners do, but an issue of what did the U.S. do, and, obviously, the head U.S. commander is Stan McChrystal.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there was great conversation today about the rules of engagement; did this violate the rules of engagement?

Explain what those are in a little more detail than we had in the setup piece. And how different are they from what was operating previously, before McChrystal got there?

YOCHI DREAZEN: Sure.

They are basically trying to say that discretion is the better part of valor in Afghanistan and that, if you have a way of leaving a fight, you should leave, even if that means allowing some of the Taliban who you were just fighting to escape.

So, that means in practice is, let’s assume you’re taking fire from a house in a village, and you’re pretty sure there are Taliban in that house, but you can escape safely, you being a U.S. soldier or a NATO soldier. If you can leave safely, you have to leave safely. You can’t call in an airstrike. You can’t use artillery. You can’t destroy that house.

In Marjah, for instance, if you see somebody holding a gun, you’re allowed to shoot back. But if you’re shot at by someone, and when you look back, he’s no longer holding that gun, you can no longer shoot at him.

But what this means basically is that, unless you’re under immediate threat, where you can’t leave without potentially dying or having some of your colleagues die, you have to break engagement and leave the area, rather than trying to fight to a decisive win.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you said that your reporting shows that yesterday’s airstrike was called in by the special forces.

So, are you saying, essentially, that now the mission of the special forces is quite different from the mission of the regular troops? I mean, one is to kill people; one is to protect people.

YOCHI DREAZEN: That’s right.

I mean, it’s certainly the case that, in Marjah, conventional forces, U.S. Marines in particular, are doing a lot of fighting and potentially a lot of killing. But the special operations forces — these would be Navy SEALs — this would be Delta Force — these would really be the most elite forces the U.S. has — their mission is very different.

I mean, here, you’re talking about sending in small teams of very heavily trained, heavily armed forces. And their mission is a narrow one. It’s to find a specific target or to kill that target. It’s not to go in and protect a village. It’s not to go in and evict the Taliban writ large. It’s to go after a very specific person at a very specific time.

MARGARET WARNER: So, do these rules of engagement apply to special forces?

YOCHI DREAZEN: That’s a great question.

In years past, special operations forces have operated under different rules. We saw this in Iraq, where they were allowed to interrogate people differently using more force and more violence. We have seen this in Afghanistan over the years as well.

In this case, when I asked within the Pentagon I was told repeatedly that General McChrystal’s guidance covers everyone. It covers Marines and it covers special operation forces. It’s not clear to me that that actually is the case, though.

And I think, as this investigation into yesterday’s strike accelerates, in particular as the number of casualties rises and as the evidence of what we were actually trying to strike grows, I think that question will be the single biggest question.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, if you could, it came up at today’s briefing. It came up at a congressional hearing. There is criticism from the other side that these rules of engagement are actually too restrictive. What are you hearing from mid-level commanders that you talk to?

YOCHI DREAZEN: It’s interesting. When you’re talking to people on the mid-level, as you mentioned, or when I have been embedded in Afghanistan fairly recently, you do hear a lot of talk that the rules are — are too tough. The phrase you often here is, we, the U.S., are now fighting with one arm tied behind our back. And there’s a lot of grumbling about that rule.

If you’re with a Marine unit that’s taking fire from a house, and, every day, that same house is shooting at them, and they can’t do anything, you could see where their frustration comes from.

That came up today at a briefing with Defense Secretary Gates and with Admiral Mullen from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They both said those rules are right and would not be changing.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Yochi Dreazen of The Wall Street Journal, thank you so much.

YOCHI DREAZEN: Thank you.