Afghanistan war: Will the new Petraeus rules of engagement make troops safer?
General David Petraeus has issued new rules of engagement for the war in Afghanistan. The rules appear to relax restrictions on the use of deadly force, but it's unclear how much meaningful change will happen on the ground.
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On Wednesday General Petraeus revised the Afghanistan rules of engagement, which are guidelines for when and how the US and other NATO troops under his command can shoot to kill. At the time of his confirmation that a rethink of the strict rules put in place by his predecessor Gen. Stanley McChrystal – which many combat troops complained put protecting Afghan civilians ahead of protecting them – was likely.
Now, he's issued a change in approach that appears to relax the rules around the edges, while maintaining the priority at the heart of NATO's counterinsurgency, or COIN, strategy in Afghanistan: "Concentrating our efforts on protecting the population," as his new directive, released Wednesday, says. The full directive is classified, according to the International Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF), the mission Petraeus leads. But the excerpts from Petraeus's rules released on the ISAF website place more emphasis on the appropriateness of lethal force than the McChrystal order it replaces.
The nuanced shift in the rules is no surprise. Some officers privately said that under McChrystal the priority on protecting Afghan civilian lives had become too doctrinaire and that, in practice, officers were reluctant to return fire or use artillery against attacking insurgents because of the presence – or possible presence – of Afghan civilians among them.
A Washington Post article by the conservative columnist George Will on June 20 – days before Petraeus replaced McChrystal – pointed out an e-mail from a noncommanding officer in Afghanistan who complained that an officer denied him permission to fire an illumination round to reveal the position of Taliban fighters who were mortaring his position at night "on the grounds that it may cause collateral damage." Illumination rounds typically float to the ground on small parachutes and are the closest thing to nerf artillery in the US arsenal. They could only kill or injure if they landed on top of someone and set that person on fire.