SANGIN, Afghanistan – Locals in this southern Afghan valley have accused U.S. Marines of regularly killing civilians since they launched an aggressive campaign against the Taliban here over a month ago — claims the Marines say are untrue and fueled by insurgent propaganda.
But the Marines acknowledge that unless they can change people's minds, they stand little chance of winning the local support necessary to tame a key area of Afghanistan that has been the deadliest place for coalition troops this year.
The dilemma highlights the difficulty of waging war in Afghanistan. If troops use too little force, they may be ineffective in fighting the Taliban. If they use too much, they increase the risk of causing civilian casualties — or being blamed for them by villagers already wary of the foreigners in their midst.
The Marines in Helmand province's Sangin district are taking the fight to enemy, using a strategy that relies heavily on airstrikes, mortars and intense gunbattles. They are trying to dislodge well-entrenched insurgents who survived four years of fighting with British troops who recently left.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of civilians have been killed in Sangin over the years in fighting between the Taliban and coalition forces, leaving the Marines needing to show their operations are not doing the same. But carrying out damage assessments in such a dangerous environment can be very difficult, meaning the truth is hard to come by.
While villagers frequently claim innocent civilians have been killed, the U.S. considered just one of the allegations credible enough to warrant an official investigation, said Lt. Col. Jason Morris, the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment that arrived in Sangin in October.
The inquiry was conducted with government representatives and determined the Marines were not at fault, he said.
"Since we have been here, there have been civilians wounded in the crossfire, but as far as I know, every single instance has been caused by Taliban firing," said Morris. "The number one tool the Taliban have to politically and strategically hamper our operations is to accuse us of civilian casualties."
The Taliban were responsible for more than 70 percent of civilian deaths from conflict throughout Afghanistan during the first six months of 2010, a total of more than 900 people, according to the United Nations. Foreign and Afghan government forces were responsible for 18 percent, or 223 deaths — down slightly from 2009.
The former NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, issued strict guidelines last year limiting the use of force in an effort to reduce civilian casualties. Afghan President Hamid Karzai also has called on coalition forces to do more to protect civilians.
The Marines must positively identify someone engaged in a "hostile act" or showing "hostile intent" and assess potential collateral damage before firing, said Morris. The assessment can be more complicated when insurgents fire from compounds that may contain civilians — a common occurrence in Sangin. Morris said the guidelines for returning fire or carrying out an airstrike in that case are classified because the Taliban could use the information to avoid retaliatory coalition attacks.
Airstrikes were the single largest cause of civilian deaths by foreign and Afghan government forces during the first half of 2010, accounting for 31 percent, said the U.N.
The Marines in Sangin have tried to counter civilian casualty allegations by broadcasting over local radio details of who they and the Taliban have killed or wounded, said Morris. But the Marines ability to influence public opinion pales in comparison to the Taliban.
"They will send people down to the bazaar to say, 'Have you heard what's going on in X,Y,Z places? It's terrible,'" said Phil Weatherill, a British government adviser who has worked in Sangin since 2009. "It just needs one flicker and it will spread like wildfire."
Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has also urged his fighters to try to avoid killing innocent civilians. Many of the crude roadside bombs the insurgents rely on to target NATO or Afghan forces kill ordinary citizens instead.
"Pay attention to the life and property of civilians so that ... your jihad activities will not become a cause for destruction of property and loss of life of people," Omar said in a message e-mailed to the media last week.
The Marines have tried to sway public opinion by increasing the number of development projects in Sangin. But they have discovered that better roads and new flood walls may do little good if locals believe the Marines are killing civilians.
"The people say we don't need any help, just stop injuring and killing our civilians," Mira Jan Aka, a village elder from central Sangin, said during a recent meeting with the Marines.
Aka was one of several elders who spent most of the weekly session complaining about Marines killing civilians.
"It's clear the Marines can kill Taliban, so why are they making mistakes and killing civilians by dropping bombs on their compounds?" said Haji Gul Mohammad, an elder from northern Sangin.
The Marines dismissed the cries of the elders, many of whom they believe are sent by the Taliban to deliver a message the insurgents hope will hinder military operations. As proof, they point out that none of the elders have been targeted by the Taliban for meeting with the Marines even though the insurgents threaten locals with death if they go near the base.
But locals who don't show up at the base have also complained about Marines killing civilians.
Tuma Khan, a landowner from central Sangin, complained to Marines during a recent patrol that they shot and killed one of his farmers who was working in the field. The Marines said the man was planting a homemade bomb in the ground.
Mullah Abdul Wali, another landowner from Sangin who recently fled with his family to Helmand's provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, complained that aggressive attacks by the Marines have killed dozens of civilians.
"The foreign troops should leave Sangin," said Wali. "They are bringing disaster to the area."
Around 40 people burned tires in Sangin's main bazaar to protest civilian casualties several weeks ago, but the Marines and the district governor, Mohammad Sharif, said they suspect the Taliban had engineered the demonstration.
The district governor may face the biggest challenge in dealing with accusations of civilian casualties. Even though he believes many of the allegations are manufactured by the Taliban, he risks looking like a U.S. puppet when he pushes back.
"I have told Lt. Col. Morris that he should talk to his Marines because sometimes they don't have good behavior with the people," Sharif told the elders who were complaining about civilian casualties. "They should protect civilians and destroy the enemy."
Morris insisted the Marines are — and said it is up to locals to prove otherwise.
"We tell everyone that if there are civilian casualties or damage to property, come to the nearest patrol base," said Morris. "But I have not seen one elder bring any bodies or offer to bring us to any compound where there have been civilian casualties."
Associated Press reporter Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.