Forward operating base Ramrod, Afghanistan: NATO commanders are weighing a new way to reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan: recognizing soldiers for "courageous restraint" if they avoid using force that could endanger innocent lives.
The concept comes as the coalition continues to struggle with the problem of civilian casualties despite repeated warnings from the top NATO commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal that the war effort hinges on the ability to protect the population and win support away from the Taliban.
Those who back the idea hope it will provide soldiers with another incentive to think twice before calling in an airstrike or firing at an approaching vehicle if civilians could be at risk.
Most military awards in the past have been given for things like soldiers taking out a machine gun nest or saving their buddies in a firefight, said Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Hall, the senior NATO enlisted man in Afghanistan.
"We are now considering how we look at awards differently," he said.
British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the NATO commander of troops in southern Afghanistan, proposed the idea of awarding soldiers for "courageous restraint" during a visit by Hall to Kandahar Airfield in mid April. McChrystal is now reviewing the proposal to determine how it could be implemented, Hall said.
Hall`s visit came less than a week after U.S. troops fired on a civilian bus near Kandahar City, killing four people and wounding more than a dozen. Hundreds of Afghans protested the attack, chanting "Death to America," and President Hamid Karzai accused NATO of violating its commitment to safeguard civilians.
McChrystal issued strict guidelines last year limiting the use of force in an effort to reduce civilian casualties and curb public anger. The percentage of civilian deaths attributed to NATO and Afghan forces fell as a result, according to the United Nations.
But even sporadic incidents can damage the coalition`s efforts, and the problem could get worse as thousands of additional NATO troops pour into the country ahead of this summer`s planned offensive in the Taliban`s spiritual heartland of Kandahar province.
There were 173 civilian deaths in Afghanistan from March 21 to April 21, a 33 percent increase over the same period last year, according to the Interior Ministry. The ministry did not provide a breakdown of who was responsible for the fatalities, but the Taliban often blame coalition forces regardless of the cause.
The idea of using awards as another way to encourage soldiers to avoid civilian casualties came from a team that advises NATO on counterinsurgency, or COIN, doctrine, said an official with knowledge of the process. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the proposal is still under review.
"We routinely and systematically recognize valor, courage and effectiveness during kinetic combat operations," said a statement recently posted on the NATO coalition`s website by the group, the Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team.
"In a COIN campaign, however, it is critical to also recognize that sometimes the most effective bullet is the bullet not fired," it said.
It highlighted an incident in Helmand province in January in which rumors that coalition forces had burned a Quran incited an angry mob to throw rocks and bricks at U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers. The Marines had the right to fire in self-defense, but none did, it said.
Six people were reportedly killed during the protest, but the shooting is believed to have come from Afghan security forces.
"There should be an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the troops who exhibit extraordinary courage and self-control by not using their weapons, but instead taking personal risk to de-escalate tense and potentially disastrous situations," the statement said.
At least 2,412 Afghan civilians were killed in fighting last year, an increase of 14 percent from 2008, according to the United Nations. About two-thirds died as a result of actions initiated by the insurgents, including ambushes, assassinations and roadside bombs.
NATO commanders are not planning to create a new medal or military decoration for "courageous restraint," but instead are looking at ways of using existing awards to recognize soldiers who go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties, Hall said.
But some US Army soldiers here at Forward Operating Base Ramrod in Kandahar province are skeptical that the chance of winning an award is going to change the way troops make decisions on the battlefield.
"Not a single one of these guys does it for the medals," said Capt. Edward Graham, referring to the soldiers in his company.
Graham, whose company is part of the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, said soldiers are constantly forced to weigh the duty they have to protect their colleagues against the goal of avoiding civilian casualties.
"The bottom line is I have to find a way to go to sleep at night," said Graham. "If I hurt women and children, I`m not going to sleep. If I lose my men, I`m not going to sleep. I have to find a balance."