Afghan Rules Need Changes

Before Gen. Stanley McChrystal made the fatal mistake of venting to Rolling Stone magazine, warriors in Afghanistan say he was guilty of an even a bigger blunder.

The four-star general put in place a series of restrictions on troops in the form of new rules of engagement (ROE). War fighters complain the rules have prevented them from taking on the Taliban full-bore in some instances, and have contributed to the enemy’s resurgence. For their part, the Taliban has read the ROE and know how to exploit them.

Gen. David Petraeus, tapped to replace McChrystal after President Obama fired him last week, vowed Tuesday to take a hard look at the rules which came in "tactical directives" from McChrystal to unit commanders.

In a message to troops and their families who believe the ROE have led to unneeded battlefield defeats and deaths, Petraeus pledged before the Senate Armed Services Committee that he will "look very hard" at the restrictions. He offered no specific changes.

"I want to assure the mothers and fathers of those fighting in Afghanistan that I see it as a moral imperative to bring all assets to bear to protect our men and women in uniform and the Afghan security forces with whom …. troopers are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder," he testified at his confirmation hearing. "Those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation."

He said that after Obama nominated him last week one of the first issues he discussed with Afghan President Hamid Karzai was the ROE.

"I mention this because I am keenly aware of concerns by some of our troopers on the ground about the application of our rules of engagement and the tactical directive," he said. "They should know that I will look very hard at this issue."


Later in the hearing, Petraeus suggested his hard look will not result in major changes to the rules themselves, but perhaps in the way unit leaders are interpreting them.

"It’s really about the implementation of the rules of engagement and the tactical directive, both of which I think are fundamentally sound," he said. "I don’t see any reason to change them in significant ways. Rather what we do need to do is make sure that the intent behind those—the intent being to reduce the lost of innocent civilian life in the course of military operation to an absolute minimum. That’s an imperative for any counter-insurgent. We must achieve that and I have pledged to continue to do that, to continue the great work Gen. McChrystal did in that regard. But at the same time we have to find that balance between ensuring that we also bring every thing to bear if our troopers get in a tough spot."

A main tenet of McChrystal’s one-year-old war plan is to win over the Afghan populace—the villagers who support, and sometimes fight with, the Taliban—was changes to the ROE. The NATO command in Kabul has been rocked by a series of mistaken killings of civilians—so-called collateral damage. The death toll has infuriated citizens and prompted President Karzai to warn Washington repeatedly that such mistakes cannot be tolerated.

McChrystal heeded Karzai. Step by step, he started to change the way troops conducted counter-insurgency.

First, he greatly restricted air strikes in support of ground troops, because mistaken bombings accounted for many civilian deaths. Then he put new limits on night operations on the theory that daytime fire fights were less likely to result in the death of innocent civilians.

In another move, he discouraged attacks on homes where terrorists were holed up. Such raids can end up destroying the simply built abodes, as well as the Taliban. Again, the idea here was that sparing civilian lives and homes will help convince the average Afghan to become an ally.

More galling to soldiers was a rule that they cannot shoot an unarmed man putting in place an improvised explosive device (IED)—even though such bombs kill the most NATO troops.

While the rules may have lofty goals, they are hated in the field.

A military intelligence officer told Human Events that McChrystal’s ROE, and the involvement they demand from military lawyers in approving targets, is a major factor in why the U.S. is not winning.

"The ROE, lawyers, and bureaucrats are killing us," this officer said. "We’re fighting a cultural battle we have yet to come to grips with."

An Army special operations soldier who has served in Afghanistan had this bitter assessment:

"If soldiers in contact need an air strike or a fire mission, give it to them. Don’t deny them illumination or smoke because a canister might land on a civilian.

"If a Taliban runs into a deserted house after clacking off an IED killing Americans, don’t disallow the attack on the house because it is a civilian dwelling. If the same guy who just shot at you, hides his weapon, walks out and gives you the finger, don’t let him go because he’s an unarmed civilian. The enemy knows our ROE and is using it against us. If we are going to turn war into a joke—get out."

Gen. Petraeus, who heads U.S. Central Command and was McChrystal’s boss, was more supportive of the general’s approach in testimony June 16 before the same committee.

He described a scenario in which U.S. troops leave a targeted house intact:

"You’re being engaged from a house. Let’s say it may not be completely effective fire. You can break contact. You know, our predisposition is to close with and destroy the enemy. That’s the motto of the infantry, to press the fight, to take the fight to the enemy. But there are cases in which you have to balance that with the recognition that if you don’t know who’s in that house, then taking the fight to the enemy ultimately means blowing up the house, which is sometimes what has to result."

"If you’re going to take out those bad guys that are shooting at you, but in the course of doing that you kill a substantial number of civilians, that, quote, ‘tactical success’ then becomes a strategic setback of considerable proportions."

Cartoon courtesy of Brett Noel