Pressure on Petraeus to ease war rules

Troops want more protection from the new US commander in Afghanistan.

Obama and Petraeus 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
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.
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.
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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 their back."
The counterinsurgency strategy, which the military calls COIN, is based on protecting civilians and weaning them away from the insurgents.
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.
"General 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."
Nevertheless, 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.
Although details 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.