Afghanistan war: New rules of engagement don't pit civilians vs. soldiers

New rules of engagement in Afghanistan that are designed to better protect civilians will safeguard US soldiers, too.

In concert with Afghans and NATO allies, American soldiers last month waged an aggressive fight against Taliban insurgents in the town of Marjah.

About the same time, US military commanders revised the rules of engagement and limited some kinds of tactical warfare – such as night operations and raids – in an effort to better protect Afghan civilians. Good public relations, the thinking goes, may matter more than good missile strikes.

Military families back home want to know: Are troops walking into hell with one hand tied behind their backs? Are civilian lives being spared in exchange for military ones?

The answer to both questions is no.

Last year, the head of international forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, put in place a critical evolution in military tactics and strategy: To save a village, you don’t destroy it (a Vietnam War approach). You really have to save it.

Since then, civilian deaths caused by international forces in Afghanistan have fallen by nearly 30 percent. Protecting the population isn’t political correctness; it’s a vital military objective and a distinct advantage over an enemy that uses civilians as shields. The drop in civilian casualties is a mark of success.

Allied troop fatalities have meanwhile increased, but efforts to spare civilians are not the cause. Rather, troops are fighting the insurgents where they live – as in Marjah. Taking on the Taliban requires taking that risk. American and allied forces may be walking into hell, but given the right strategy and purpose, they remain free to fight effectively.

From the front lines, soldiers report that they aren’t shooting anyone who can’t clearly be identified as a combatant. Jets race low across the horizon but are not dropping bombs – a show of ready force rather than of needless destruction.

When civilians were caught up in a rocket attack on the Taliban last month, the US conducted an investigation and quickly offered an apology for the unintended losses.

In Badula Qulp, a village just north of Marjah, US military officials offered compensation for the death of the local mullah’s son and pledged to rebuild a mosque destroyed by a helicopter-fired missile.

These policies may be frustrating in the short term for US and partner forces, but most soldiers understand the long-term benefit. The most compelling argument is that killing civilians fuels distrust and hatred among the population. That increases the risks for troops and their mission.

Combat is violent, frightening, and confusing, and troops on the ground have both the instinct – and the right – to protect themselves. The critical role for commanders is to convey the lesson taught by the US Army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual, drafted under Gen. David Petraeus: “Sometimes the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.”

Military tactics are always balanced against strategic objectives, force protection, and humanitarian imperatives. In Afghanistan, international forces have had more than eight years to figure out what hasn’t worked and what will. The new emphasis on civilian protection is a welcome move toward striking the right balance.

In the Army there is a saying, “Mission First, Soldiers Always.” Safeguarding civilians and taking care of soldiers are not mutually exclusive. We owe our troops as much training, operational guidance, and moral certainty as modern war will allow.

If they can hold their gains, US forces and their Western and Afghan military partners will have demonstrated in Marjah that they can launch a major offensive without turning civilians into enemies. Assessing the real benefits will take time and a continued commitment to civilian protection. This village may yet be saved. And what’s good for the village is good for the troops.

Sarah Holewinski is the executive director of Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC). James Morin served as an airborne infantry platoon leader in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both are fellows at the Truman National Security Project.


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