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Afghanistan: NATO Troops Apply 'Robust' New Rules Of Engagement

  • Ron Synovitz --> ISAF country flags on display during a transfer-of-command ceremony in Kabul on 6 February (epa) NATO forces being deployed across Afghanistan as part of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are operating under new rules. The "rules of engagement" approved recently by the alliance are said to be "more robust" than in the past -- allowing NATO troops to take preemptive action against perceived threats. Those rules were quickly put to the test today amid violent protests over newspaper cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

PRAGUE, 7 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Reports from Maymana in northwestern Afghanistan suggest that four people were killed today when hundreds of demonstrators stormed the gates of a Norwegian military facility there.

There were conflicting reports about who was responsible for the casualties.

Reuters reported that Afghan police fired on the crowd. Mohammad Latiff, the governor of Faryab Province, said the Norwegian soldiers began shooting after some demonstrators fired guns and threw hand grenades. Some correspondents reported that injuries were caused by the demonstrators.

Norwegian defense officials in Oslo were quoted as saying that their troops fired teargas and rubber bullets at the crowd and then called for support from two Dutch F-16 fighter jets that flew over the crowd and fired two warning shots. NATO officials also said they had sent an undisclosed number of British troops to reinforce the facility. Meanwhile, the United Nations has ordered an evacuation of all nonessential staff from the Maymana.\

Early Test Case

Ian Kemp, an independent London-based defense analyst, says this case provides a good illustration of the new rules of engagement approved for NATO troops in Afghanistan.

"Rules of engagement are applied in any operation," Kemp says. "And they describe the situation in which the security forces can use lethal force either to defend their lives, or the lives of colleagues, or the lives of civilians."

NATO spokesman James Appathurai tells RFE/RL that the rules of engagement apply to all of the UN-mandated ISAF troops in Afghanistan -- not just the NATO soldiers being sent to the south, where fighting against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban continues.

"In essence, these expanded or updated rules of engagement make it clear to ISAF forces what they can do when they encounter challenges to their safety or their mission," Appathurai says. "And they make it very clear that ISAF forces will not be sent with one arm tied behind their backs. They can engage to defend their mission [and] to defend themselves. If that means they see a threat looming in the hills, they do not have to wait to be attacked [and] to take casualties. They can take action to defend themselves -- including, if necessary, preemptively."

Broad Interpretation

Military analysts say the rules could have allowed the Norwegian troops to fire earlier than they reportedly did -- before the protesters began using weapons.

Kemp tells RFE/RL that NATO's rules of engagement could be interpreted even more broadly -- for example, allowing ISAF troops at a checkpoint to shoot a car that is speeding toward them.

"The NATO forces are going to be allowed to fire when they feel they are going to come under attack. And generally speaking, this means that the attackers need to be identified with some form of weapon -- either rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, Molotov cocktails," Kemp says. "This is where it comes into a question of interpretation. Certainly, a vehicle being driven at speed at soldiers at a checkpoint is often felt to be a life-threatening situation in which soldiers could use lethal force to stop that vehicle."

Cooperation With Afghan Government

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has asked soldiers from both the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition and the NATO-led ISAF mission stop searching homes of ordinary Afghans without prior approval from the government in Kabul.

The United States has rejected that request for Operation Enduring Freedom. But spokesman Appathurai says NATO troops will only conduct such search operations under extraordinary circumstances.

"ISAF, the NATO-led mission, will not be engaged in search and destroy missions for terrorist leaders as a principle mission," Appathurai says. "That is Operation Enduring Freedom's job. They are hunting terrorist leadership and terrorists. Operation Enduring has its own rules of engagement. They are quite broad, of course. Where ISAF may encounter insurgents who might impede them from carrying out their mission, then they can take action."

Appathurai stresses that ISAF's mission is to support the Afghan government. He says support includes help to train the fledgling Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. He says NATO troops also could be embedded into Afghan security forces as part of the training effort.

NATO also has a clear mandate to help the Afghan government with counternarcotics operations -- including the transport of Afghan anti-drug police across the country.

Appathurai says most of the 6,000 NATO troops being deployed into southern Afghanistan this year will protect and support Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Those are joint military-civilian teams that carry out security patrols, work on reconstruction projects, and can even broker political arrangements between warring militia factions.
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