I recently received a letter from my Ohio National Guard command asking me if I would volunteer to go to Afghanistan for a “historic combat operation” next year. The letter encouraged me to volunteer for the mission; it was not an order to deploy. Contrary to what you may have heard about an overstressed military, my unit had been requesting to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan for years before we finally were. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we wanted to contribute to the war effort and were pleased when we received our orders to go to Iraq in 2006.
But this time I wouldn’t even consider volunteering to go to Afghanistan because the Obama administration is no longer fighting to win the war. Many of my closest Army friends have deployed to Afghanistan and they confided in me that they would not want to go again because they felt their hands were tied by restrictive rules of engagement (ROE). These highly-trained Special Operations soldiers have a legion of stories about not being allowed to fight as they had been trained.
President Obama’s arbitrary July 2011 deadline for U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan to start drawing down weakens our allies’ resolve and strengthens our enemies’. But the president is also sending the wrong message to his own troops, and losing our hearts and minds. It seems that many inside the Beltway lack exposure to members of the military, and do not even understand the basic concept that troops consider themselves warriors in a war. The Obama administration will not even call it a war on terrorism—preferring the term “Overseas Contingency Operation.” Obama says he does not want to use the word “victory,” a word that has motivated soldiers for millennia.
Our president and vice president said during the presidential campaign that operations in Iraq had been a distraction, and that the focus of the war on terrorism should be Afghanistan. And in his recent Oval Office address, the president said, “because of our drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense.” If only offense were now the approach.
In Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s words, I worry that “this war is lost.” Reid said that of the Iraq War before the surge had a chance to work (“the surge is not accomplishing anything,” is the rest of Reid’s comment; Obama also opposed the surge).
We need another surge in Afghanistan like the one in Iraq in 2007, but in December 2009, Obama only ordered an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan instead of the reported 45,000–80,000 requested by General Stanley McChrystal.
Too few troops and passive ROE leave me and many once-ardent believers in the war devastated that our efforts may have been in vain, and that our fallen comrades are being left behind. The replacement of McChrystal with his CENTCOM commander and hero of the Iraq War General David Petraeus gave me brief hope that ROE might change, but then Petraeus announced last month that he will largely keep the weak, conflicted ROE of his predecessor. Petraeus’s August 4 tactical directive restricts when weapons can be used if civilians are present, allowing their use only when there are certain risks to troops.
The directive aims to avoid civilian casualties while killing the enemy. Avoiding civilian casualties is a noble cause and always a priority in war, but these rules can only endanger our troops. We already try to protect civilians but also want to protect ourselves and our brothers in arms. These paralyzing ROE result is more allied casualties and troops’ frustration on the battlefield, especially as the enemy purposely places civilians in harm’s way.
We’ve now had more casualties in Afghanistan under President Obama than in the seven and a half years of war under President Bush; more than 1,200 U.S. troops have been killed since 2001.
This month, the president announced the end of combat operations in Iraq and something other than victory there, but U.S. troops have continued to die. In Afghanistan, the only hope I have for our troops to create the secure conditions necessary for prosperity is if more veterans are elected to Congress this year. Today, Washington sorely lacks the realism and experience of men and women who have served in combat.
Lastly, as a reminder to our elected officials and commanders, we troops are volunteers and have the choice whether to re-enlist or get out. On the ground, these rules of engagement mean our troops are in battle calling for fire support that may never come.
Dennis W. Bartow II is a 17-year Army veteran, an Ohio National Guardsman, and director of Operations for Vets for Freedom in Ohio. He has deployed to Iraq, Kuwait, Kosovo, and Oman. He was special assistant for military and veterans affairs to Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-OH.