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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.