Questions raised over ‘very restrictive’ rules of engagement in Afghanistan

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Nearly a year before his infamous resignation several weeks ago, Gen. Stanley McChrystal tightened the rules of engagement (ROE) for soldiers serving in Afghanistan to restrict troops from firing unless fired upon and prohibiting bombing or launching artillery attacks with civilians nearby.

As the Taliban in Afghanistan ramp up attacks and become more emboldened, American troops on the ground are reportedly more anxious than ever to relax the strict ROE which, in many cases, put them at greater risk.

Walking the line between troop safety and limiting Afghan civilian casualties during a war where the enemy shields themselves among the innocent is the tricky dilemma that Gen. David Petraeus faces as he moves into his new role as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

In June, Strategy Page, a military affairs news site, reported that NATO forces in Afghanistan had reduced civilian casualties caused by foreign troops 44%, civilian injuries 52%, and civilian casualties caused by air strikes by 82%. At the same time civilian deaths at the hands of the Taliban increased by 36%.

The reduction of civilian deaths caused by NATO troops in Afghanistan has come at the cost of greater risk to NATO forces. Troop deaths in Afghanistan have increased in recent months. According to the Los Angeles Times, in June at least 102 coalition soldiers were killed, exceeding the previous monthly record of 76 in August 2009. Of those 102, an estimated 60 were American soldiers, a new record surpassing the 59 American deaths recorded in October 2009.

McChrystal changed the ROE in Afghanistan in 2009 amid concern that too many Afghan civilians were dying. The new directive was aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people in an effort to encourage the population to embrace the NATO mission and aid NATO troops. In an interview at the International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul, Col. Greg Julian, the top U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan said, “The guidance to the troops clarifies that citizens are the center of gravity and that we should do everything to gain their support and we must do everything to avoid civilian casualties.”

According to Strategy Page, “The ROE change was partly in response to popular (or at least media) anger at civilians killed by American smart bombs.” The report continued, “Now American commanders have to decide who they shall respond too; Afghan civilians asking for relief from Taliban oppression, or Taliban influenced media condemning the U.S. for any Afghan civilians killed, or thought to be killed, by American firepower.”

Illustrative of this restrictive engagement policy is the NATO proposal to award soldiers in Afghanistan medals for “courageous restraint,” for avoiding civilian causalities at risk to themselves. Some have speculated that the majority of such awards would be given posthumously.

While Afghan civilians are spared, some troops are not pleased with the increased dangers. Speaking from Afghanistan on the July 4 edition of Fox News Sunday, Connecticut Independent Senator Joe Lieberman said that the current ROE were harmful to the troops and urged Gen. Petraeus to reassess the situation.
“I think that the current rules of engagement, at least as our troops have felt they’ve been interpreted, have hurt morale here among American military,” he said.  “And so I hope he changes those rules, clarifies them as quickly as possible.”

Retired Col. Austin Bay, a columnist for Creators Syndicate, told The Daily Caller that there are always risks, whether the ROE are restrictive or not. “Going with a very restrictive ROE, which McChrystal did, accepts tactical risks with lives of soldiers,” Bay said. “Going with less restrictive rules has strategic risks. Risking the lives of civilians and potential alienation of the people.”

Pundits and politicians will speak of the macro-effects of the ROE, but there is a very human element involved. On June 27, William and Beverly Osborn, father of fallen American soldier Benjamin Osborn, wrote an email to Gen. Petraeus urging him to change the current policies with which Americans soldiers are forced to comply.

“Our son, SPC 4 Benjamin D. Osborn was killed in action June 15, 2010 in Kunar Province Afghanistan, on a mission,” they wrote. “On that day, his unit of 20 was ambushed, coming under heavy fire from a Taliban force of between 70 to 100 strong. Due to the ‘Rules of Engagement,’ our soldiers could not return fire to protect themselves until ordered to do so….Finally, ordered to fire, Ben was able to get off 10 rounds before falling silent. This illustrates to us that there is a very basic flaw in our ‘Rules of Engagement.’ We believe that it led to the demise of our son, SPC 4 Benjamin D. Osborn and other warriors like him.”

“I would like General Petraeus to respect his soldiers because I feel this administration respects the enemy more than they respect our men on the ground,” William Osborn told The Daily Caller in an interview. “These are highly trained men but they are not able to use their skills.”

Still grieving with her husband, Beverly Osborn pointed to a post she left on the message board of a July 1 Larry Elder column that captured her feelings.

“The soldiers know what is going on…. It gives me nightmares to think about ….an ambush… and knowing it is going to happen and not being able to fight back at will…it gives me so much pain to know what my son’s thoughts were like as he headed towards terrorists but couldn’t fight at will,” she wrote in part.

Shortly after receiving the Osborns’ letter, Gen. Petraeus responded, saying, “I am keenly aware of concerns by some of our troopers on the ground about our application of our rules of engagement and the technical director. They should know I will look very hard at this issue.”

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