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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

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Rules of Engagement Under the Microscope

February 19, 2010 - 6:25 PM | by: Justin Fishel

Washington D.C. — One week into the invasion of Marjah, Afghanistan Marines and NATO forces are beginning to feel the restrictions put on them by their own rules of engagement. The roughly 800 Taliban insurgents who decided to stay and fight need to be carefully distinguished from tens of thousands of innocent civilians before they can be engaged by coalition forces. The goal, says NATO’s top general in Afghanistan, is to win the hearts and minds of the population, not to decimate it.

But the Taliban know the rules. They know that Marines aren’t allowed to fire on them if they don’t have a weapon. Marines have struggled with Taliban snipers who lay down their rifles after they run out of bullets, taunting the American forces as they walk away from the buildings they used for cover. Fox’s Conner Powell is embedded with a Marine unit in the region. “We’ve seen them be extremely disciplined with their fire”, Powell said. “They’ve not returned fire when they’ve been attacked by Taliban insurgents unless they can confirm in fact that it was Taliban insurgents or snipers shooting at them.”

NATO forces are also hampered by what’s known as the “96 hour rule”. Last summer NATO instituted a new detainee policy which says that if any NATO or International Security Assistance Force soldiers, including Americans, can’t transfer captured terrorists or enemy combatants to the Afghan justice system within 96 hours, they have to be released. The problem is that in many cases there isn’t enough time or resources to move detainees, and they end up going free. Some in the military are calling it the “catch and release rule.”

Bob Scales, a Fox News military analyst and retired Army Major General, says the Taliban know what they are doing and they’re taking advantage of the rules. “This war isn’t being fought against mindless ignorant peasants; it’s being fought against a wily enemy who is smart enough to use our rules of engagement against us”, Scales said.

Troops are also told that harsh treatment of detainees, including the use of rough language, is also not allowed. This applies even if the detainees are known to have planted roadside bombs or fired on coalition forces.

There are some exceptions to the rules. If a wanted terrorist is picked up by a U.S. Special Forces unit working under the confines of Operation Enduring Freedom, rather than NATO, that prisoner would be sent to a detention facility at Bagram Air Base, where U.S. interrogators would be free to question him within the guidelines of the Army Field Manual.

Yet the elite units are greatly outnumbered by NATO forces and therefore most detainees are picked up under the 96 hour rule. But the rules are in place for good reason, says State Department Spokesman PJ Crowley. “Having once been a soldier myself, there are always going to be frustrations at various times”, Crowley told reporters Friday. “But I think we are quite satisfied with the strategy.”

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