American troops will no longer have to fight the Taliban with one hand tied behind their back.
On the orders of General Petraeus, coalition troops now have the authority to “pursue the enemy relentlessly.” That means, among other things, that the rules restricting air strikes and artillery strikes will be relaxed to allow NATO forces to fire on terrorist targets in abandoned or dilapidated buildings. The new order sees Petraeus put his first stamp on Afghan war policy since replacing General McChrystal, and it signals his clear belief that coalition forces could win this war only if they are allowed to fight back against an enemy that strikes without warning and hides behind civilians.
For Petraeus, this is all a difficult task. The NATO forces in Afghanistan are there at the behest of the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. Karzai has proven a difficult ally, corrupt and of questionable loyalty, but in the morass of Afghan politics, mired in tribal and religious intrigue, Karzai is, for better or worse, the West’s man in Kabul. And his already difficult job is made more difficult by the occasional, tragic losses of innocent life at the hands of errant Allied bombs and artillery shells. And yet, if our soldiers in Afghanistan cannot fire their heaviest, most effective weapons, the already difficult task of defeating the Taliban insurgency on the field of battle becomes outright impossible. In a vicious counter-insurgency war against Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants, it is the West’s technological advantages that help us keep pace with a low-tech, but brutal, enemy.
General Stanley McChrystal, recently fired for his intemperate comments to Rolling Stone Magazine, had tackled this problem directly, imposing stringent Rules of Engagement on the forces under his command. Artillery strikes and bombing runs by aircraft were strictly regulated, limited to very specific tactical scenarios where the troops on the ground calling down the heavy firepower could confirm that only hostile insurgents would be in the line of fire.
And the policy seemed to pay some dividends. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research has suggested that the reduction of accidental civilian deaths in Afghanistan translated directly into a reduction of violence directed against the NATO forces. The NBER report calls it the “revenge effect,” through which the accidental killing of civilians can be expected to quickly produce retaliatory strikes against NATO troops or Western interests. (Interestingly, the report notes that the same was not true in Iraq — civilian collateral damage did not lead to any noticeable increase in the number of attacks against Coalition forces in that country.) As General McChrystal’s Rules of Engagement began to reduce the number of civilian casualties, the number of attacks directed against his troops declined.
While that is a good thing in and of itself, one cannot win a war by avoiding contact with the enemy, particularly in a country such as Afghanistan, where the insurgent forces are largely composed by locals and the Allied forces come from across the world and continue to serve there only at the pleasure of impatient electorates. NATO’s resolve is already wavering. The Netherlands have withdrawn their troop contingent, and the Canadian combat mission in Kandahar province will soon be replaced by some yet-to-to-determined non-combat mission. President Obama himself has pushed for a firm withdrawal date, though recent events seem to rendered irrelevant the originally stated American withdrawal date of July 2011, with speculation now suggesting that there will be a small withdrawal of troops so as to comply with the President’s election promises without fully ending the war.
Given these timetables, the Taliban could simply run down the clock on NATO and emerge intact to conquer the country as soon as the West gives up and goes home. While waiting for the NATO troops to leave, and exploiting the stringent Rules of Engagement to avoid the worst NATO has to offer, the Taliban could continue to intimidate local officials, cooperate with the opium trade and set off the odd suicide bomb or improvised explosive device, just to remind the NATO countries what it is they are so eager to get away from.
Petraeus, recognizing this, is determined to redouble the efforts of the NATO troops under his command, not merely to secure Afghanistan and protect aid projects — though those things are of course important — but to actively seek out and destroy the Taliban, using the full weight of the firepower NATO has available to do it. To that end, General Petraeus has struck a sensible compromise position.
He has “clarified” the Rules of Engagement put in place by General McChrystal before him. American and NATO troops will be permitted to call down artillery and tactical air power down on buildings that enemy troops are known to hiding in if there is reasonable probability that the structure contains no civilians. Under the McChrystal rules, this was still permitted, but many field-level commanders were confused by the stringent rules and either felt that no strikes were permitted or chose to never call in a strike to avoid any potential complications if they had interpreted the rules incorrectly.
Since General Petraeus can credibly claim that the clarification does not reflect a watering-down of the Rules of Engagement, he will avoid antagonizing the Afghan government and will blunt any criticism that the Allies are about to start indiscriminately bombing the whole of Afghanistan. But by issuing his tactical directive, which according to Stars and Stripes will clearly explain “what, where and how to apply force” in a way that limits civilian casualties without compromising the ability of the troops to fight the enemy, Petraeus hopes to improve the morale of the troops under his command, who have felt like they have been asked to win a war with one hand tied behind their back. Petraeus wants them to pursue the enemy “relentlessly,” but carefully.
Clarifying the Rules of Engagement will not be enough to turn the tide in Afghanistan, America’s longest and arguably toughest war. But it is a step in the right direction. The troops, if given the mandate to win and the political support from the Obama administration necessary to convince the Taliban that America and its allies in the free world are not about to cut and run, this long, hard war may yet see an imperfect, but favorable, outcome.
Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at [email protected].