Afghanistan War: Petraeus Tightens Rules of Engagement

August 6, 2010 
by Michael Leon

By Jason Motlagh

In his first tactical directive since assuming command of international forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus doubled down on the orders imposed by his predecessor that put a premium on protecting civilians first to win their support. For months those rules of engagement, formulated by General Stanley McChrystal, have led to rank-and-file grumblings by U.S. soldiers. The servicemen say that the strict rules put them in greater danger, even as they aim to avoid civilian casualties. The grumbling is unlikely to diminish with the new directives that Petraeus issued on Wednesday.

The renewed call for a disciplined use of force – plus added restrictions – were not what most troops were hoping for. Over the past year a series of directives issued by McChrystal limited air strikes and hot pursuit in populated areas. This managed to reduce civilian casualties caused by NATO forces, pleasing Afghan officials and rights groups. But many war fighters contend the current policies have handicapped their ability to effectively take on the Taliban, a guerrilla force that doesn’t have to play by the same rules.

There’s also been widespread uncertainty over how troops can defend themselves when under attack. Misinterpretations of earlier directives by ground officers in some parts of the country confused and frustrated a lot of frontline soldiers, who say they worry about the consequences of a heat-of-the-moment mistake. (Can the allies trust the Afghans to watch their backs?)

Now, rather than loosen the rules of engagement as many would have preferred, General Petraeus has tightened them. Under General McChrystal, NATO forces were prohibited from calling in air strikes or artillery fire on village compounds where the enemy might have been mixed in with civilians.

Going several steps better, General Petraeus has reportedly expanded the ban on air strikes and artillery fire to all types of buildings, tree-lined areas and hillsides where it is difficult to distinguish who is on the ground. Although the military has kept much of the directive’s fine print classified for operational security, other measures are said to include a curb on small-arms fire that has yielded a steady trickle of fatalities at checkpoints and in night raids on private residences. These have surpassed errant air strikes as the main source of civilian casualties. Writes Petraeus: “Every Afghan civilian death diminishes our cause.” (See the women of Afghanistan under the Taliban threat.)

In his directive, Petraeus tried to reassure troops of their basic right to self-defense. With a nod to the inconsistencies, he forbade lower-level officers from making his guidance stricter “without my approval,” adding, “We must give our troopers the confidence to take all necessary actions when it matters most while understanding the strategic consequences of civilian casualties.” In other words, commanding officers should not make their soldiers feel too cautious about defending themselves when necessary.

And, in the event they are at risk of being overrun by enemy forces, they are allowed to forgo stringent civilian-oriented protocols to defend themselves.

Still, the emphasis on avoiding civilian casualties is a loud echo of McChrystal’s dogma. And it should come as no real surprise. General Petraeus authored the U.S. Army counterinsurgency manual that was the backbone of McChrystal’s strategy, ensuring continuity in letter and spirit. In the run-up to his confirmation, Petraeus vowed to stay the course. And everything he has done so far seems to underscore his predecessor’s policies.

On Sunday, he released a broader list of counterinsurgency warfare guidelines to the 135,000 troops under his command that reinforce the existing strategy, exhorting them to be more respectful and learn about the nuances of Afghan culture to better connect with locals. Among his recommendations: drinking more tea, living among the people, admitting mistakes when things go wrong and using information as a weapon.

General Petraeus is not the only one hustling to shape perceptions. Last week the Taliban command released its own directive calling on fighters not to harm civilians, with the exception of those working for international forces or the Afghan government (“supporters of the infidels”), who are to be executed. “The Taliban must treat civilians according to Islamic norms and morality to win over the hearts and minds of the people,” says the document, which appears to be in response to an aggressive NATO campaign to publicize how the Taliban is now responsible for most Afghan civilian deaths.

But it’s not quite working. At least 43 Afghan civilians have been killed by the militants since the 69-page code of conduct was released, according to NATO, mostly from roadside and suicide bombs, including a Monday blast in Kandahar that left five children dead

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