McCrystal Shakes Up Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan
General McCrystal is reevaluating the Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan calling for U.S. Troops to break contact in lieu of risking civilian casualties (WSJ 24JUNE09; WSJ 25JUN09). This would drastically change the face of warfare from the perspective of a conventional combat arms soldier who is trained to fight and kill the enemy.
Whether I agree with McCrystal or not is irrelevant: we follow orders. But what I would like to convey to my friends and family (particularly those who don’t have much connection with the military) is just how difficult this policy will be to implement.
Imagine that you are a Private who has just joined the Army. You’re about to go on your first tour to Afghanistan, but your Squad Leader and Platoon SGT are both veterans from the invasions in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Each of them had a tremendous amount of independence during their deployments, having little responsibility to the civilian population if their lives or the lives of their soldiers were at risk. This is how we’ve raised the modern Army since 2003. These battle-hardened NCOs, the backbone of the Army, have been passing on their experience, knowledge, and demeanor to their impressionable soldiers. A platoon is like a family: soldiers learn from and follow those NCOs who take care of them. Thus, we need to realize that the status quo attitude about civilians for senior NCOs and junior enlisted is, in short, “Protect them if you can, but not at the risk of soldiers or the mission.”
Secondly, nearly every Rules of Engagement document that I’ve ever read starts out with “Each soldier always has the right to defend him or herself, Coalition forces, or civilians with lethal force.” Rule number one for any soldier in the U.S. Army is, when engaged, return fire. So at what point does a Squad or Platoon Leader’s right to “return fire to protect his or her men” end and his obligation to “break contact with the enemy” begin? When the Company Commander or Platoon Leader is not there to make the judgement, how can we enforce the spirit, not just the word, of the policy?
On a more strategic level, I understand that GEN McCrystal is trying to preserve our favor with the local Afghan population by minimizing civilian casualties. But are we really doing that by running away from the fight? How can we continue to justify our overbearing presence to local leaders if we’re not actively pursuing the Taleban who are terrorizing their villages? We must also take into account that propaganda plays a huge role in terrorist recruitment and funding. Images and videos of us “breaking contact” can easily be shaped as “fleeing” in order to promote the Taleban or Al-Qaeda’s progress: “see, the U.S. refuses to fight…we’re winning the war!”
In one of his interviews, General McCrystal said something which, to me, is the crux of what this debate is all about: “There will be plenty of opportunities to kill Taliban, and we’re pretty good at that. But the focus here, the reason we’re here, is the people, not the Taliban.”
Saying that “we’re here for the people” to me is a fundamental shift in our military policy in Afghanistan. Last time I checked, the reason we were in Afghanistan WAS the Taleban: the instigators of September 11th. At least that’s what my Brigade Commander tells us in our “pump up” speeches. Even if GEN McCrystal is trying to combat the Taleban by winning over the people, we still need to make it clear that our purpose is to fight the Taleban. The great thing about the U.S. Army is that each soldier is issued both a task and a purpose. This policy, especially to the common soldier, sends us a mixed signal on what our purpose is going to be during this deployment.