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.”
Dusty little faces peered over ancient salmon-colored mud walls as the Americans entered the village. The children giggled and pointed at the soldiers.
“Stop, don’t walk any closer,” the Pashtun interpreter told a farmer and two boys who emerged from the back of the old British fort. “Stop where you are.”
They kept walking in the soldiers’ direction but the soldiers did not raise their weapons.
“Stop,” the interpreter yelled again. “Don’t move.”
He then asked the man and boys to lift their traditional tunics to show the soldiers that they were not carrying weapons or explosives. Eventually, they were allowed to pass.
The platoon members spread across and around the fields surrounding the village. An announcement from a dilapidated mosque alerted villagers of the impending search.
“Well, the bad guys know we’re coming,” said the interpreter, laughing. “They’re probably hiding their weapons by now.”
Some of the men squatting outside the mosque looked stoic. Others stared in anger.
In the mosque, the soldiers discovered a 9 mm handgun with clips.
A U.S. civil affairs officer, who asked that his name not be revealed because of the nature of his work, said only insurgents carry such handguns. “Everyone here has Kalashnikovs, very few have these,” he said.
The mosque’s imam, who gave his name as Sahed, walked alongside the U.S. soldiers down a narrow dusty road, followed by a gaggle of children.
“We need help getting clean water,” he told Capt. Thoreen through the interpreter. “Water is what is most important.”
Civilian aid workers and State Department officials rarely visit Maywand because of security concerns, so development work falls on the U.S. military’s shoulders.
“We have to be everything from the soldier to the engineer, water expert to medical care,” Capt. Thoreen said.
“We try to hire locals but first we need to secure the region,” he said. “We are not going to get the [nongovernmental organizations] out here until we do that.”
Imam: U.S. ‘needs to go’
Interviewed by The Times, Sahed the imam said U.S. troops were “respectful to his people and provided security.”
“I tell my people in the mosque to not become suicide bombers and to not kill those who want to help us,” he said.
However, asked about the presence of U.S. troops in his village, Sahed said they “need to go. Get out of Afghanistan or it will never be resolved. Between Islam and the infidel there can never be a relationship.”
“In my personal opinion, the Americans won’t be able to resolve this problem,” he added. “The longer they stay the more likely there will be another attack like Sept. 11. It’s only the Afghan people who will be able to resolve this problem.”
The next day, however, the imam visited the U.S. combat outpost for the first time, bringing a gift of homemade yogurt candy. He told Capt. Thoreen that he had asked his people to stop targeting the U.S. soldiers.
Capt. Thoreen said he appreciated the gesture but wasn’t sure whether the imam was telling the truth.
“To some degree we are trying to pull the people of Maywand back over,” he said.
“In some ways, we’re not just fighting for their security but our own and those of the ones we love back home.”
Then he added, referring to the rules of engagement that his forces try to observe, “For our guys, it’s tough. Sometimes they feel they have their hands tied behind their backs.”
Contacted by e-mail after The Times’ reporter and photographer had returned to the U.S., Capt. Thoreen described a clinic his unit had since hosted, which treated 75 locals including 20 women.
“It was a huge success. The people are becoming much more open and friendly,” he said. As evidence of that success, he cited a drop in IED attacks on his soldiers.