Opinion

Why US soldiers in Afghanistan are so frustrated

Restrictive rules of engagement reflect a deeper problem: It’s not altogether clear why US soldiers are trying to “win over” the population.

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President Obama’s declaration last week that a change in personnel will not mean a change in policy suggests that the administration took only some of the lessons contained in Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone article. America’s problems in Afghanistan are not fundamentally about personnel, command and control, or civil-military relations. In the spaces between the controversial quotes from Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff, one finds more instrumental – and more troubling – explanations for US difficulty.

The article describes a group of soldiers frustrated about the increasingly restrictive rules of engagement (ROEs) under which they have to operate. The troops explained that they are hamstrung, unable to protect themselves and use their superior firepower to fight the enemy. This is not the first time these concerns have been reported; signs of such dissatisfaction among American troops have been emerging for months.

A New York Times article last week described the restrictions on return fire as having become so tight that pilots cannot engage enemy fighters unless they see a weapon. Some troops now purposely expose their position and draw enemy fire in order to get approval for fire support from the air.

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At his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Gen. David Petraeus pledged to reevaluate ROEs. “Those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation,” he said, vowing to “find that balance” between protecting soldiers and limiting civilian casualties.

General Petraeus’s review is welcome, but it must recognize that restrictive rules are symptoms of a larger problem. The experience of troops on the ground is part of the growing body of evidence that America’s reliance on the prevailing theory of counterinsurgency, or “COIN,” is at best problematic.

The restrictive ROEs have been put in place because of modern COIN doctrine’s central tenet: The way to succeed is to win over the population. Because the “people are the prize,” the theory goes, they must not be unduly offended or harmed. This fundamental imperative is intended to drive all other aspects of the campaign.

Certainly very few would argue against protecting innocent civilians; we have a moral and legal obligation to do so. Most Americans do not want US and NATO troops to be aggressors, and some would argue that the new restraint is a necessary corrective to heavy-handedness in the early years of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the inadvertent killing of civilians in Afghanistan has been a perennial problem for the coalition.

Yet despite the increasingly restrictive ROEs, recent reports suggest that civilian deaths have actually increased in 2010. Meanwhile, June was one of the deadliest months for US forces in the nine-year war.

Focusing on the needs and views of the population also appeals to the democratic sensibilities of Western intellectuals. For all these reasons and more, the notion of winning over the population is intuitively attractive, and most analysis of it stops with its articulation.

But allied forces on the ground may justifiably ask how “winning over” the population leads inexorably to the desired chain of events that ends in US and coalition success. And how will progress in implementing this open-ended mandate be credibly measured? How much of the population needs to be “won” and how is this manifested? Who should do the “winning?”

Perhaps more important, there are serious questions about how achievable this objective is in Afghanistan.

Recent research suggests that financial blandishments do not buy hearts and minds, and that pumping money into poor and troubled societies alienates more people than it wins. The US and its allies are providing billions in aid to a country with a per-capita GDP of less than $400 – a formula destined to supercharge the very corruption that impedes the development of good governance and builds resentment among ordinary people.

What if military restraint backfires and the population sees the US and NATO as weak and unable to defend them? And is it realistic to suppose that a foreign power could ever gain the trust and esteem of the largely tribal people of Afghanistan, whose suspicion of outsiders is legendary? Without such specifics, the theory is reduced to a large-scale charm offensive, with no means to link action with outcomes.

But what is the alternative? Alienating the population and harming civilians will not help anyone either. The answer is that the administration should take the opportunity presented by the recent unexpected change in command to refine US objectives and the means for reaching them.

The US and its allies are not in Afghanistan to win the enduring affection of the Afghan people, however commendable such instincts may be. Given a price tag of nearly $100 billion a year, more than 1,100 American lives (including at least 58 in June), incalculable strategic opportunity costs, and a debatable link to preventing threats to the US, it is critical that the administration provides a clear definition of America’s purpose in Afghanistan and articulates more specifically how COIN theory will help achieve it.

It is not enough to argue that “we did it in Iraq,” since that proposition is also a matter of serious debate, and the conditions in Afghanistan are materially different.

America’s troops have the right to question restrictions on them that may shift the advantage to the enemy and the risk to themselves, and to expect a coherent explanation as to why such restrictions may improve the prospects for success or protect the United States. If the administration is determined to persist – at least for the next year – in the large-scale commitment of forces, it is only proper to ensure that the risks being taken by America’s fighting men and women are truly purposeful.

Celeste Ward Gventer, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, was political adviser to the operational commander of US forces in Iraq in 2006 and deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations capabilities in 2007-08.

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