Obama and Petraeus 311.
(photo credit: Associated Press)
KABUL, Afghanistan — NATO forces fighting in southern Afghanistan face a Catch-22 dilemma: how to protect troops against an enemy that lives — and fights — among the population without killing civilians and turning the people against the US-led mission.
fires US Afghan commander
General Petraeus slumps at Senate hearing
There are complaints from the ranks about restrictive policies which place their lives at risks and this is one of the issues facing General David Petraeus — along with relations with a weak Afghan government and jittery allies; slow and uncertain progress on the battlefield; and frayed ties to the civilian side of the mission.
But among the most
sensitive and important to the troops he commands and to supporters of
the military at home will be whether to continue the rules laid down by
his predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal, that stress saving civilian
lives but sometimes leave US forces at greater risk.
Down in the
ranks the rules are widely perceived as too restrictive, playing into
the hands of the Taliban who appear keenly aware of the regulations.
Some troops believe the rules cost American lives and force them to give
up the advantage of overwhelming firepower to a foe who shoots and
melts back into the civilian population.
At a Pentagon news
conference Thursday, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, hinted about possible changes in the rules when asked about
troops who feel "they're being asked to fight with one hand tied behind
The counterinsurgency strategy, which the military
calls COIN, is based on protecting civilians and weaning them away from
According to a UN report, at least 2,412
civilians were killed last year — a 14 percent increase over 2008. But
the percentage of those deaths caused by international and Afghan
government forces dropped from 39 percent in 2008 to 25 percent last
year, the UN said.
To encourage soldiers, the US military is
considering presenting "Courageous Restraint Awards" to troops who
displayed restraint in hostile situations.
Anthony Cordesman, a
scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the
strategy in Afghanistan is adjusted regularly to respond to changes on
the battlefield. But Cordesman also noted that Petraeus has been deeply
involved in all aspects of the war, including the rules of battle.
Petraeus has been in the loop during the formulation of these, has been
sitting in on weekly satellite conferences, has been part of most of
the major monthly and quarterly reviews," Cordesman said. "So this is
not somebody coming to this with a new set of attitudes."
soldiers and Marines trained to fight complain the generals are out of
touch with the situation on the battlefield.
The rules, many of
them believe, give the advantage to the Taliban.
of the rules are classified, troops say they cannot fire on a suspected
militant unless he is presenting a clear threat. Troops say, for
example, if a fighting-age man emerges from a building from which they
are taking fire, the soldiers cannot fire at him unless he is armed or
they personally saw him drop a weapon.
What this means, some
troops say, is a Taliban militant can fire at them, then set aside his
weapon and walk freely out of a compound, possibly toward a weapons
cache in another location. It was unclear how often this has happened.
Troops pinned down by insurgent bullets say they can't count on quick
air support because it takes time to positively identify shooters.