Will Petraeus Change Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan?
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.