With the dismissal of General McChrystal and the appointment of General Petraeus to lead the effort in Afghanistan, there has been much speculation about how this change might affect the conduct of the war. There has been a consistent message from many American troops in Afghanistan – the rules of engagement are putting them at risk and they must be changed. It is important that such concerns of the troops be examined. They are bravely risking their lives every day. However, at the same time, we must recognize that the broader principle of civilian protection will not change under Petraeus. Because civilian protection is a key component of Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrine, if we were to toss this out the door, it would undermine the entire Afghan strategy.
This is not to say that the manner in which civilian protection is carried out shouldn’t be reviewed and modified. I was encouraged by Petraeus’s comment today in his Senate hearing when he said,
….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. They should know that I will look very hard at this issue.
George Will wrote in a recent column about the difficulties an NCO was having in conducting a mission. During a night time mission in Afghanistan, the NCO’s unit was coming under fire. He called for a 155mm howitzer round to illuminate the enemy’s position. The request was denied because there was concern that the “illumination” shell could harm civilians.
I don’t agree with Will’s conclusion that it’s time to begin “disentangling U.S. forces from this misadventure”. However, the anecdote does provide a glimpse of the daily realities that our troops are facing and the decisions that are made every day that can put our troops and/or nearby civilians in danger. Many troops have similar stories of how a decision by a higher authority put them at greater risk in order to protect civilians.
In most wars the US has fought, this hasn’t been an issue. War was about destroying the enemy with overwhelming force to compel surrender. This doctrine led to the complete destruction of numerous cities in Japan during World War II either with fire bombing or nuclear bombs. In Afghanistan, our goal is different. The enemy is not a nation state, but rather a band of brutal extremists. Although we have become more adept at killing them, they will not be eliminated until the local populace rejects them and eliminates their safe havens.
Today’s counterinsurgency conflicts require that we rethink our approach. The doctrine in many ways is counter intuitive. Here are a few such paradoxes from Petraeus’s counterinsurgency manual:
1. The more you protect your force, the less secure you are
2. The more force used, the less effective it is
3. The more successful COIN (counterinsurgency) is, the less force that can be used and the more risk that must be accepted
4. Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction
5. The best weapons for COIN do not shoot
6. The host nation doing something tolerably is sometimes better than us doing it well
7. Tactical success guarantees nothing
Of course we need to ensure that our soldiers are able to protect themselves. There is no question about that. Petraeus is right to examine the ways in which the counterinsurgency doctrine is being implemented on the battlefield. Even the best doctrine implemented incorrectly can lead to loss of life. However, this must be examined through the lens of counterinsurgency doctrine that recognizes that we will never win this war if the Afghan population turns against us. The key to this review will be determining how that can be accomplished while ensuring that our soldiers can fully protect themselves when in harms way. Getting this balancing act right will be a tremendous challenge. If anyone can get do it, Petraeus can.