Gen. David Pe­traeus

some say ef­forts to halt civil­ian deaths put forces at risk

Austin American-Statesman - - FRIDAYBRIEFING - By robert H. reid

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.

Ab­dul Khaleq

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.

J. Scott Applewhite

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