FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — Deep in the woods on the Kentucky-Tennessee line, soldiers who call in powerful weapons such as mortars are learning how to get close enough beforehand to better identify targets, a key element of the military’s new mandate to reduce Afghan civilian deaths.
For several weeks, the 1st Brigade Combat Team has been focusing on advanced artillery training that incorporates hours of planning and carefully assessing targets and firepower as part of the new rules.
“All planning is based on where you can shoot and where you can’t shoot,” said Lt. Col. Randy Harris, the deputy commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team.
“Of course the enemy has a vote on that as well,” he noted.
The Taliban and the insurgent fighters in Afghanistan “hug the population because they understand the side effects,” said Lt. Col. Douglas Vincent of 1st Battalion, 32nd Cavalry Regiment, the brigade’s reconnaissance group. “They know by doing that they put the civilian population at risk.”
The brigade has deployed three times to Iraq, where airstrikes have drastically decreased from last year. But in Afghanistan, rough mountainous terrain and the lack of adequate roads mean ground forces need more assistance from the air.
According to the Air Force, the number of rockets, bombs and strafing runs in Afghanistan totaled nearly 1,200 compared with just four in Iraq this summer. Still, that’s down nearly 50 percent from last summer in Afghanistan.
Many of Fort Campbell’s units are staging large-scale weapons exercises with the Air Force through the rest of this year to better prepare. Mortars and bombs are capable of razing large areas and inflicting serious injury, so soldiers learn to carefully observe the enemy and the battlefield before pulling the trigger.
The number of NATO troop deaths in Afghanistan has reached an all-time high this year, raising questions about whether the emphasis placed on restraint is risking the lives of soldiers. When the current commanding officer in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, issued the directive earlier this year, he acknowledged it “entails risk to our troops.” But alienating the Afghan population is a far greater risk, he said.
Defense analysts say the efforts to curb civilian casualties doesn’t account for the rise in troop deaths.
“If you look at how soldiers are dying, it’s not because of a lack of airstrikes,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, who noted that many troop deaths are caused by ambushes and roadside bombs.
Despite the restraint, civilian casualties also have been climbing, up to 202 in September from 169 in August, according to figures compiled by the Associated Press. The civilian deaths could be attributed to stepped up Taliban attacks.
The 101st Airborne commanders who will go to Afghanistan say they have embraced the mission to limit casualties, even if it makes their jobs more dangerous.
“The center of gravity is the people and the population,” Vincent said, “and anything that goes counter to that is obviously working against your mission.”