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Will Petraeus Change Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan?

General David Petraeus, who led the change in counterinsurgency tactics that broke the back of the Sunni insurgency and Iranian-backed Shia militias in the Iraq war, has just been confirmed by the Senate to become the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Petraeus stepped down from his position as commander of United States Central Command — responsible for operations in 20 countries and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — to focus exclusively on trying to win what has now become America’s longest continuing war.

Petraeus stepped in to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who resigned last week after he and members of his staff criticized and mocked civilian leadership in a Rolling Stone article.

Even before General Petraeus was named to be McChrystal’s replacement, pundits and servicemen alike began wondering if the next commander would consider modifying the current rules of engagement (ROE) in the region. Part of the criticism leveled at McChrystal during his tenure as commander in Afghanistan were rules of engagement that were designed to reduce civilian casualties, even as those rules put servicemen in greater jeopardy.

To encourage NATO troops serving in Afghanistan to hold their fire until it was absolutely necessary, McChrystal had been considering awarding medals for “courageous restraint.” That concept had been proposed by British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the NATO commander of troops in southern Afghanistan:

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.

The concept of “courageous restraint” has not been received warmly by warfighters, many of whom are far more receptive to the quote attributed to another iconic American general played by George C. Scott in the movie Patton: “No poor bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making other bastards die for their country.”

William Osborn, no doubt, shares those sentiments. Subject to the rules of engagement authorized under General McChrystal, Osborn’s son, Spc. Benjamin Osborn, was part of a military unit that was forced to wait to engage Taliban fighters confronting his MRAP on June 15. When finally allowed by his commanders to fire, Specialist Osborn manned his machine gun, only to be cut down after firing just ten rounds.

Still grieving their recent loss, the Osborn family sent an email to General Petraeus placing the blame for their son’s death on McChrystal’s rules of engagement:

The current rules of engagement call for firing only after being fired upon, Osborn said, and that rule is what led to the death of his son.

“We have the greatest fighting force in the world with the most technologically advanced weapons known to man,” Osborn’s e-mail to Petraeus stated. “We spend enormous resources to teach, train and prepare our fighting men and women for battle; then send them out with one hand tied behind their backs.”

General Petraeus responded to the Osborn family almost immediately, sending his condolences and noting that “commanders have a moral imperative to ensure that we provide every possible element of support to our troopers when they get into a tight spot.”

June holds the dubious distinction of being the deadliest month of the war for NATO forces. Pressure to revise the ROE to better protect allied troops is growing. But what kind of rules of engagement will a Petraeus-led NATO force deploy?

Exact rules of engagement are rarely (if ever) made public, but anecdotal evidence — including accounts from soldiers, media embeds, and Afghan civilians — suggests that the current, McChrystal-era ROE heavily restrict small arms use to those occasions when NATO troops are under fire and must fire in self-defense. If Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters use civilians or their homes as shields, commanders have been very hesitant to allow return fire, especially the overwhelming firepower from artillery, helicopter gunships, ever-present drones, or fighter-bombers circling high overhead that give NATO forces such a dedicated technological advantage.

General Petraeus is a savvy commander. It is highly unlikely he will unduly restrict forces and increase the likelihood of allied casualties as critics have accused McChrystal of doing. At the same time, he will not allow a free for-all-environment either, as successful counterinsurgency doctrine requires that the military forces gain the goodwill of the population they are there to protect.

What we are likely to encounter are a revised set of rules that do not radically revise the existing ROE, but which are fine-tuned to address specific situational needs where the current ROE are sub-optimal. If a Taliban machine gunner takes refuge in a civilian-populated Afghan compound and is able to bring effective fire to bear on NATO forces, the new ROE may not allow an airstrike, but they may be more permissive of allowing suppressive small arms fire that allows soldiers or Marines to maneuver into position to take out the enemy fighters in the kind of close quarters battle (CQB) in which American forces excel.

Even the Arab news network Al-Jazeera seems supportive of General Petraeus’ intention to review and revise the current ROE, noting that while McChrystal’s rules made NATO forces feel disadvantaged, they did nothing to reduce Afghan civilian deaths.

It is a horrible certainty that civilians will die in war. In many conflicts throughout history, civilian deaths in the land where the battle rages often dwarf the number of combatants killed. There is a strong argument to be made that since civilians are going to die in any conflict, rules of engagement that focus on eliminating enemy forces — and thus ending the war — should be paramount.

We may never know the exact rules that General Petraeus puts into effect in Afghanistan, but if the mission is to win the war instead of merely holding ground, rules more to General Patton’s liking may be coming over the horizon with deadly speed.

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