- 11 UK soldiers gunned down in Helmand in past three months, compared to two in the same period last year
- Troops say they changed rules of engagement in response to U.S. efforts to cut civilian shootings
British soldiers in Afghanistan claim that new tactics are preventing them shooting at the Taliban until they have been fired at themselves – resulting in an alarming rise in the number of casualties.
The troops say they have had to change their procedures as part of American-led efforts to cut down on the number of civilians being wounded, but the new approach has made them more vulnerable.
In the past three months, 11 British soldiers have been killed by enemy gunfire in Helmand province, compared with just two in the same period last year.
The Ministry of Defence denied there has been any change in the rules of engagement for British troops. However, a spokesman for the multinational forces headed by US General John Allen confirmed there had been a tactical review after which the British were told to alter their procedures.
Soldiers now say they are particularly vulnerable when they are manning checkpoints at road junctions or patrolling Taliban heartlands such as the so-called ‘green zone’, a densely vegetated river valley.
In the past, they say, they could shoot first at armed insurgents but are now only allowed to return fire.
One junior non-commissioned officer said: ‘When I arrived in Helmand, my officers said our tactics were going to change.
‘They said that if I saw somebody carrying a rifle or a rocket launcher, I shouldn’t fire at him. Only if he shot at me or a member of my patrol, and I could see a muzzle flash from his rifle, could I use my weapon.
‘I was shocked and so were my mates. We are trained to close in and kill the enemy, not to let him stroll on, watch us and let him choose the best time to ambush us.
‘On previous tours, we would have engaged the enemy first to show them what we were made of. We’re up for a fight but now we always have to back off’
‘It has been hard to obey these orders while on patrol. There have been many occasions when we have come under fire from the Taliban, who we’ve seen following us through the green zone.
‘On previous tours, we would have engaged the enemy first to show them what we were made of. We’re up for a fight but now we always have to back off.
‘It makes me question the point of us being here.
‘Older guys like me have seen the tactics change over the years and 2012 is the hardest because we’re taking so many backward steps. I really feel for the families of the guys who’ve lost their lives, and I miss my mates who are dead.’
Conservative MP and former British Army officer Patrick Mercer said: ‘The Taliban can move as they please, even when heavily armed, and we’re not interfering with them.
‘Currently there is a reluctance to engage and a preference for a policing approach.
‘Soldiers I’ve spoken to feel frustrated and vulnerable. The rise in fatal wounds from gunshots comes as no surprise.
‘I feel deeply for the soldiers placed in this perilous position.’
Military sources say the timing of Gen Allen’s demands was unfortunate because the orders coincided with a tactical shift by the Taliban.
It recently stepped up ambushes because of growing British success in thwarting mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Gen Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), has also forbidden the firing of rockets into mud-brick compounds housing ordinary Afghans but also used by the Taliban.
Soldiers say tactics have changed dramatically since British forces arrived in Helmand in 2006.
Back then, they could engage anyone who posed a threat – whether or not they were armed.
But in 2009, US General Stanley McChrystal, who was then ISAF’s commanding officer, ordered British soldiers only to engage insurgents who were bearing arms.
Gen Allen ordered a tactical review after negotiations between ISAF and the Afghan government.
The country’s president, Hamid Karzai, has criticised ISAF for causing civilian casualties, with the UN estimating that more than 3,000 were killed last year.
An ISAF spokesman said: ‘We have conducted a number of conferences devoted to the reduction of civilian casualties.
‘These conferences have been a forum for passing tactics, techniques and procedures to the operational level and into practice.
‘Gen Allen recently ensured all commanders reviewed and certified their troops on the updated tactical directives, with an emphasis on the prevention of civilian casualties.’
The MoD said: ‘There has been no change to UK rules of engagement, and our forces continue to have the freedom they require to operate in support of increasingly effective Afghan security forces.
‘We have always been very clear, as has ISAF, that our troops go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.
‘Recent amendments to the ISAF tactical directive reflect that commitment, but in no way limit the use of fire support in situations of self-defence.’