The question is this simple:
If an American soldier is under attack in Afghanistan, when are they allowed to shoot back?
The answer should be reflexive and immediate. But in the dusty warrens of Kandahar and the rugged mountains of Kunar Province, American forces are struggling every day to abide by a confusing set of so-called “Rules of Engagement.”
The confusion puts their lives in danger. And that’s why Gen. David Petraeus has vowed to review the “ROE,” as they are referred to in military parlance.
Before his dramatic resignation last month, Gen. Stanley McChrystal had cracked down on the rules of engagement in an effort to limit civilian casualties as the United States led a surge of 30,000 troops into Kandahar and began a new counter-insurgency campaign in the town where the Taliban movement was born.
McChrystal said the strategy would require specifically tightening the use of airpower, artillery and “lethal force” in population centers such as Kandahar, where insurgents live among the population.
McChrystal explained that the increased risk to American soldiers was part of the price that the United States and its allies would have to pay for a counterinsurgency strategy intent on winning hearts and minds.
The revised rules of engagement have been applauded by many Afghan leaders. Human rights activists say they contributed to a reduction in the number of Afghan civilian casualties killed by foreign troops, which according to a U.N. report, reached a total of 2,412 last year.
But these stricter rules have been disparaged by American military analysts and returning veterans. Sen. Joe Lieberman, who recently toured Afghanistan and studied the issue, went so far as to say they “hurt morale.”
Stories of troops waiting for air support and being prevented from firing unless they are shot at first have been rippling through the military for months. Many soldiers in the field complain that the Taliban is keenly aware of these rules and has become expert at firing on U.S. positions and then melting back into the civilian population.
Now that Gen. Petraeus has taken the reins of power in Afghanistan, he has vowed a “hard review” of these guidelines for troops in the field. Petraeus said he would look to ensure that they are implemented more consistently in the filed and that confusion is minimized through better briefings of field commanders on what is expected of their troops.
Troops interviewed by GlobalPost correspondents in the field say they are relieved to hear that there may be some reconsideration of the current ROE.
In a memo to troops in the field issued on July 4, the first day he formally assumed command, Petraeus seemed to be striking a new chord: “Protecting those we are here to help nonetheless does require killing, capturing or turning the insurgents. We will not shrink from that.”
In this GlobalPost video report from Kunar Province, the confusion is brought to life through the eyes of the soldiers who are growing frustrated with all the revisions and the rethinking that has gone into the U.S. military’s “Rules of Engagement.”
The stakes are high, as any soldier in Afghanistan will tell you.
June was the deadliest month on record for foreign troops. The death toll was 102 and more than half of them were American soldiers.
But even with more clear rules of engagement that allow soldiers to react to the situation around them, it’s not clear that will improve the chances for success in Afghanistan.
As Sgt. Trevor Petsch, interviewed in this video, put it: “We’d be more successful at killing. I don’t know how much more successful we’d be at winning the war.”