U.S. troops battle both Taliban and their own rules
Sara A. Carter
KASHK-E-NOKHOWD, Afghanistan | Army Capt. Casey Thoreen wiped the last bit of sleep from his eyes before the sun rose over his isolated combat outpost.
His soldiers did the same as they checked and double-checked their weapons and communications equipment. Ahead was a dangerous foot patrol into the heart of Taliban territory.
"Has anyone seen the [Afghan National Army] guys?" asked Capt. Thoreen, 30, the commander of Blackwatch Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment with the 5th Stryker Brigade. "Are they not showing up?"
A soldier, who looked ghostly in the reddish light of a headlamp, shook his head.
"We can't do anything if we don't have the ANA or [the Afghan National Police]," said a frustrated Capt. Thoreen.
"We have to follow the Karzai 12 rules. But the Taliban has no rules," he said. "Our soldiers have to juggle all these rules and regulations and they do it without hesitation despite everything. It's not easy for anyone out here."
"Karzai 12" refers to Afghanistan's newly re-elected president, Hamid Karzai, and a dozen rules set down by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, to try to keep Afghan civilian casualties to a minimum.
"It's a framework to ensure cultural sensitivity in planning and executing operations," said Capt. Thoreen. "It's a set of rules and could be characterized as part of the ROE," he said, referring to the rules of engagement.
Dozens of U.S. soldiers who spoke to The Washington Times during a recent visit to southern Afghanistan said these rules sometimes make a perilous mission even more difficult and dangerous.
Many times, the soldiers said, insurgents have escaped because U.S. forces are enforcing the rules. Meanwhile, they say, the toll of U.S. dead and injured is mounting.
By mid-November, Capt. Thoreen's unit had lost five soldiers to suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Many more had been wounded and three of their Stryker vehicles had been destroyed.
In his Aug. 30 assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, which was leaked to the press, Gen. McChrystal said that the legitimacy of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had been "severely damaged … in the eyes of the Afghan people" because of "an over-reliance on firepower and force protection."
To succeed, he wrote, "ISAF will have to change its operating culture to pursue a counterinsurgency approach that puts the Afghan people first." This entails "accepting some risk in the short term [but] will ultimately save lives in the long term."
The Times compiled an informal list of the new rules from interviews with U.S. forces. Among them:
• No night or surprise searches.
• Villagers have to be warned prior to searches.
• ANA or ANP must accompany U.S. units on searches.
• U.S. soldiers may not fire at the enemy unless the enemy is preparing to fire first.
• U.S. forces cannot engage the enemy if civilians are present.
• Only women can search women.
• Troops can fire at an insurgent if they catch him placing an IED but not if insurgents are walking away from an area where explosives have been laid.
Without Afghan army or police, Capt. Thoreen and his troops were about to scuttle their mission: a house-to-house search for weapons and insurgents in the poor Pashtun village of Kashk-E Nokhowd, combined with an effort to win over the village's 200 residents by passing out toys, pencils and toiletries.
Finally, a small ragtag group of Afghan police arrived to accompany the Americans. The Afghan army was a no-show.
The police, some of whom who looked as young as 13 in their oversized uniforms, have a poor reputation in the local Maywand district for corruption and extortion.
"I'm guessing it was too early for the Afghan National Army to get up out of bed and help us out," Capt. Thoreen said. "They're probably still asleep. Unbelievable."
"Is everyone accounted for?" he asked. "Let's move — stagger your positions."
As the sun revealed the Red Mountain of Maywand, the soldiers headed out the gate of combat outpost Rath with weapons ready.
They set up a security perimeter near a more than century-old British fortress, whose crumbling walls overshadowed the small outpost.
In 1880, British and Indian forces fought and lost a battle here against Afghan forces led by a girl named Mawali, a Pashtun interpreter told The Times. He asked that his name not be used to protect himself and his family from Taliban retribution.
"She told the men in the village that they were not men if they would not raise their arms to fight the enemy," he said. "They were so embarrassed they went to battle and Pashtun farmers killed more than 6,000 British and Indian soldiers."
The interpreter said this Pashtun Joan of Arc was buried not far from the village. On this day, however, there was not a woman in sight. Under the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islam, women are discouraged from appearing in public and are supposed to be shrouded head to toe in burqas.
Because of the Karzai 12 rules, U.S. forces have had to bring in American women to conduct searches of their Afghan counterparts.
So Cpl. Amy B. King, 42, a medic from Springfield, Mo.; Spc. Dionalyn O. Bird, 29, a cook from Bloomfield, Conn.; Spc. Toni Winkler, 20, a medic from South Carolina; and Sgt. Frevette J. Skelton, 31, a cook, entered the village with Capt. Thoreen's men.
"We have the women say their names before we search them because sometimes it's a man under the burqa," said Cpl. King. "In some cases, there are weapons on them."
"It's OK for the insurgents to use their women to hide weapons but it's not OK for us [men] to search them," said Staff Sgt. Joshua Yost, 27, of Shelton, Wash. "So now, we have to break our own rules and bring women into combat just so they can search the women."