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How US tries to limit civilian deaths in Afghanistan

A record number of US troops – and Afghan civilians – died in 2008. Frustration mounts over fighting Taliban insurgents among villagers.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 13, 2009

UPHILL CLIMB: In eastern Afghanistan, a medic offers a dehydrated US soldier a bottle of water.

Bob Strong/Reuters

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Camp Keating, Afghanistan

Keating, Fritsche, Lowell, Bostick, Cherry-Beasley. The list goes on and on. Almost every coalition forces' camp in Afghanistan is named for a life cut short.

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Officers give briefings in front of plaques bearing the photographs of the dead. Camps are rechristened to memorialize their names. And flags are rarely seen fluttering at the top of their poles anymore.

The situation is getting worse. In recent months, coalition deaths here have outnumbered those in Iraq, and attacks in 2008 were up by 28 percent over the previous year, says Col. Skip Davis, strategic adviser to Gen. David McKiernan, who commands the approximately 70,000 troops in Afghanistan. A record 294 NATO soldiers were killed in Afghanistan last year; 155 were Americans, according to icasualties.org.

One of the reasons for the mounting number of coalition casualties, explain General McKiernan's staff, is the pressure not to hit civilians – coupled with the growing use of civilians either as proxy fighters or as human shields by the insurgents.

"In my area of operations, those doing much of the shooting and lobbing of rockets at our outposts are not, by and large, the enemy you might think they are," notes Maj. Matt McCollum, operations officer at Bostick, a Forward Operating Base (FOB) that oversees much of the volatile northeastern Kunar Province, which borders Pakistan.

Many are just local young men who have nothing to do and are being paid by the insurgents. "They do it for adventure, for the money, and just because they've been told it's cool to fight foreigners. It gets them street cred points."

Furthermore, adds Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, spokesman for the coalition forces in Afghanistan, these young men carry out their attacks from roofs or windows of houses with other civilians inside. "If we engaged, we would hit them back, but the constant problem is differentiating who is who."

Thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed since the start of the war in 2001, caught in the crossfire or in Taliban suicide attacks – but also, increasingly, victims of US airstrikes gone wrong, a fact that has precipitated a backlash against America and its partners. According to Human Rights Watch, 540 civilians lost their lives during the first six months of 2008 alone, a full 173 of them during coalition attacks – an outcome the coalition desperately wants to avoid.

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