Gen. David Petraeus
some say efforts to halt civilian deaths put forces at risk
faces questions from troops over rules of engagement.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Crouched in a field of opium poppies, a Marine lieutenant pleaded over the radio for an airstrike on a compound where he believed a sniper was firing at his troops. Request denied. Civilians might be inside, and the Marines couldn’t see a muzzle flash to be absolutely sure the gunman was there.
The lieutenant’s frustration, witnessed in February by an Associated Press journalist in Marjah in southern Afghanistan, points to a Catch-22 dilemma facing the NATO force: how to protect troops against an enemy that lives — and fights — among the population without killing civilians and turning the people against the U.S.-led mission.
Those complaints from the ranks are among the issues facing Gen. 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.
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, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, that stress saving civilian lives but sometimes leave U.S. forces at greater risk.
Those rules, issued a year ago, helped make McChrystal a hero among many Afghans because they brought down the number of civilian casualties blamed on the NATOled force. The rules were issued at a time of a rising tide of public anger over Afghan civilians killed by mistake in airstrikes and by heavy weapons such as cannons and mortars.
Down in the ranks, however, the rules are widely perceived as too restrictive, playing into the hands of the Taliban who appear keenly aware of the regulations. Some troops think 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.
During his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, Petraeus said he would review restrictions on U.S. airstrikes and artillery in Afghanistan. “I am keenly aware of concerns by some of our troopers on the ground about the application of our rules of engagement and the tactical directive,” Petraeus told senators the day before the Senate unanimously confirmed him as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. But he also said: “I would continue the emphasis on reducing loss of civilian life in the course of operations to an absolute minimum.”
According to a U.N. report, at least 2,412 Afghan 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 U.N. said.
The U.N. attributed much of that decrease to the directive issued by McChrystal, who was dismissed last month for disparaging remarks he and his aides made about senior members of the Obama administration to Rolling Stone
Continued from A13 magazine.
“Winning hearts and minds in (counterinsurgency warfare) is a cold-blooded thing,” McChrystal was quoted in the article as telling a U.S. soldier who expressed frustration about the rules. Trying to convince him, McChrystal said: “The Russians killed 1 million Afghans, and that didn’t work.”
To encourage that message, the command is considering presenting “Courageous Restraint Awards” to troops who displayed restraint in hostile situations.
“We routinely and systematically recognize valor, courage and effectiveness during kinetic combat operations,” the command said in a recent statement.
“In a (counterinsurgency) campaign, however, it is critical to also recognize that sometimes the most effective bullet is the bullet not fired.”
The rules don’t mean U.S. troops cannot rely on air power, but the emphasis is on caution, and officers fear career damage if they mistakenly call for air or heavy weapons support and kill civilians in the process.
In May, McChrystal reprimanded four U.S. officers after an investigation found the rules were violated in a February airstrike that killed 23 Afghan civilians — including a woman and three children. Troops thought it was a Taliban convoy.
Anthony Cordesman, a schol- ar 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.”
In 2007, when he commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, Petraeus said in an interview with National Public Radio that counterinsurgency warfare is about “protecting the Iraqi population” so that “your actions don’t create more enemies than you take off the streets.” Gen. David Petraeus, who testified on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, faces a host of issues as he takes over in Afghanistan.
The percentage of civilian Afghans killed by international and Afghan government forces dropped last year from 2008, when airstrikes were blamed for deaths in Helmand province.