PARWAN, Afghanistan — American Marines and Georgian soldiers waited outside the mud-brick compound about a mile north of Bagram Air Field as their interpreter and a Georgian master sergeant pressed a group of villagers about who may have been responsible for rocket attacks against the nearby NATO base.
Days before, an American civilian woman was killed when a rocket slammed into her vehicle inside the wire. Krissie Davis of Talladega, Ala., became the first employee of the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency killed in Afghanistan. Another American civilian was wounded.
The U.S.-Georgian patrol was looking for a “person of interest” in the attack. But the villagers insisted the person was no longer there. The patrol had little choice but to take the villagers at their word.
Before the NATO combat mission ended last December, the Marines and the Georgians could have searched the compound to see if the suspect was hiding inside. Under the new post-command mission rules, however, they need a search warrant from the Afghan police or the government’s intelligence service, said Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jeremy Langford.
After nearly a decade in Afghanistan, almost 13,000 U.S. and NATO forces are still in Afghanistan — and still patrolling outside the wire.
But the new mission — mostly training and advising Afghan forces — has come with a new set of rules of engagement.
New rules prohibit U.S. and other NATO troops from actively hunting Taliban or other insurgent groups in the country. But if those groups “directly threaten U.S. and coalition forces,” troops “may take appropriate action against those individuals,” according to the Pentagon.
That means America’s longest war is not quite over. As long as the Taliban threaten NATO bases, troops end up conducting missions that could place them in danger — though with more restrictions on how they operate.
“Nothing has changed, really. Except for the rules of engagement,” Czech 1st Sgt. Mike Baka told Stars and Stripes during another night patrol last month with members of the 4th Czech Lion Company and the 101st Airborne Division.
The challenges are especially evident on night patrols.
Former President Hamid Karzai had restricted night operations, saying they were stoking resentment and encouraging support for the Taliban. His successor, Ashraf Ghani, lifted those restrictions after taking power last September, but concern about the political impact of night operations linger.
On a night operation two months ago, a joint U.S.-Czech force was split into two groups, one led by Baka with an American service-dog team, and the other with Czech soldiers and a bomb-disposal team from the 101st. Both groups pushed out just under 2 miles on foot, setting up in two areas used by the insurgents for rocket attacks.
Conspicuously absent that night were Afghan troops — except for an interpreter.
Bagram spokeswoman Lt. Col. Amanda Azubuike said Afghan forces take part “in the vast majority” of security operations around the Bagram base. But on some operations like air assaults, surveillance and reconnaissance, coalition forces operate on their own.
Baka said Afghan troops were left behind because they did not have the capability to go on these kind of missions.
During the day, operations focus more on meeting with local leaders and providing a security presence alongside Afghan forces. But at night, coalition forces perform everything from security patrols to discreet reconnaissance operations.
While both missions are defensive in nature, Baka said his men would be ready to defend themselves if they made contact with the insurgents.
“During the night is when we know the bad guys operate,” Baka said.
Troops say there are signs the Taliban and other insurgents are adapting to the new rules of engagement.
During the June 10 patrol, Langford said that since NATO troops can no longer search homes without a warrant, insurgents simply hide inside until the patrol leaves.
“It’s either, ‘They just went to the mosque’ or, ‘You just missed them; they are in Kabul,’?” Langford said, recalling numerous excuses he has heard during patrols around Bagram.
As the patrol ambled down a narrow dirt path toward their vehicles, Langford quickly glanced back at the compound’s windows.
“Sometimes you’ll see [someone] peek out the windows after they say no one is there,” he said.
Do the patrols find suspects they are looking for?
“Rarely,” he replied.