Laura King / The Los Angeles Times – 2010-07-09 20:30:54
KABUL (July 5, 2010) — It can be a split-second decision, or one that plays out over long and agonizing hours: to kill or not to kill.
Rules of engagement is the legalistic term for the battlefield calculus of when and whether to use deadly force to counter a threat, real or perceived. Across Afghanistan, these rules serve as the marching orders that govern Western troops’ daily encounters with Taliban fighters — and color dealings with Afghan civilians.
US Army Gen. David Petraeus, who yesterday formally took command of Western forces here, must decide in the coming weeks or months whether to recalibrate the stringent rules of engagement laid down last summer by his predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who recently resigned after making remarks in a magazine article that denigrated the civilian leadership.
Of Petraeus’ early command decisions, this will be among the most closely watched. So far, he has struck a delicate balance in public remarks.
At his Senate confirmation last week, Petraeus said he foresaw no major shift in strategy in the war. But he has made clear that even if the rules of engagement do not change, the nuances of how they are implemented will get a new look.
Assuming command yesterday, Petraeus told his troops that while civilian safety remains a critical consideration, “as you and our Afghan partners on the ground get into tough situations, we must employ all assets to ensure your safety.”
It was a remark intended to reassure those in the field that the safeguarding of Afghans was not to come at the expense of military lives.
“We are engaged in a contest of wills,” he told several hundred US, coalition and Afghan officials outside NATO headquarters in Kabul. By killing and maiming civilians — even using “unwitting children to carry out attacks” — the Taliban and their allies are trying to undermine public confidence in the Afghan government and the international community’s ability to prevail, he said.
“In answer, we must demonstrate to the people and to the Taliban that Afghan and international forces are here to safeguard the Afghan people, and that we are in this to win,” Petraeus said. “That is our clear objective.”
When McChrystal took over as commander in June 2009, foreign forces in Afghanistan were the accidental cause of nearly as many civilian deaths as were the insurgents.
McChrystal set out to change that, and he was credited with bringing about a substantial drop in the proportion of civilian casualties suffered at the hands of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and its Afghan allies.
Under the procedures put in place last summer, commanders could not fire on buildings or other sites where they had reason to think Afghan civilians might be present unless their own forces were in imminent danger of being overrun. And even then, they were told to break off engagements rather than risk harming noncombatants.
Few in or outside the military contested McChrystal’s underlying premise that civilian deaths caused by the West are highly counterproductive because they galvanize public fury and thus help bolster support for the Taliban. Alienating the villagers who live in battle zones flies in the face of US counterinsurgency strategy — one that bears the stamp of not only McChrystal but Petraeus himself and is centered on winning Afghan hearts and minds.
But for months there has been grumbling in the ranks that the rules of engagement sometimes hamper the ability of Western troops, who include nearly 100,000 Americans, to defend themselves, let alone move aggressively against a determined enemy.
In the heat of battle, the restrictions can diminish to the vanishing point the American advantages of superior firepower and technology, some field commanders say, thus leaving small units particularly vulnerable.
In his remarks yesterday, Petraeus also said:
“We must demonstrate to the Afghan people — and to the world — that al-Qaida and its network of extremist allies will not be allowed to once again establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan from which they can launch attacks on the Afghan people and on freedom-loving nations around the world.”
Information from the Associated Press was included in this story.
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