Rules of Disengagement: A Troubling New U.S. Combat Posture In Afghanistan

New Rules of Engagement

As a general matter, while I write a fair amount about national security strategy, I’m usually hesitant to wade into military tactics, a subject best left to the professionals. Even among those who know their stuff, military tactical decisions often involve difficult tradeoffs on which reasonable people can and do disagree, plus people who lack a military background (as I do) often make hilarious mistakes when attempting to lay out the facts of such stories, let alone dissect them, without running them by someone who knows their stuff. I’d prefer to avoid the kind of armchair generalship we had among so many on the Left during the Bush years who were hair-trigger quick to accuse U.S. tactical decisions of being (1) incompetent or (2) atrocities.

All that being said, I find myself utterly baffled by this report from the Associated Press on comments made by and on behalf of the new commanding officer in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and his spokesman, Rear Adm. Greg Smith, and of course I have to wonder if the order comes from McChrystal or originates higher up the chain of command from the political branches:

The top U.S. general in Afghanistan will soon formally order U.S. and NATO forces to break away from fights with militants hiding in Afghan houses so the battles do not kill civilians, a U.S. official said Monday.

The order would be one of the strongest measures taken by a U.S. commander to protect Afghan civilians in battle. American commanders say such deaths hurt their mission because they turn average Afghans against the government and U.S. and NATO forces.

Civilian casualties are a major source of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. The U.N. says U.S., NATO and Afghan forces killed 829 civilians in the Afghan war last year.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who took command of international forces in Afghanistan this month, has said his measure of effectiveness will be the “number of Afghans shielded from violence,” and not the number of militants killed.

McChrystal will issue orders within days saying troops may attack insurgents hiding in Afghan houses if the U.S. or NATO forces are in imminent danger and must return fire, said U.S. military spokesman Rear Adm. Greg Smith.

“But if there is a compound they’re taking fire from and they can remove themselves from the area safely, without any undue danger to the forces, then that’s the option they should take,” Smith said. “Because in these compounds we know there are often civilians kept captive by the Taliban.”

McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, issued rules last fall that told commanders to set conditions “to minimize the need to resort to deadly force.”

But McChrystal’s orders will be more precise and have stronger language ordering forces to break off from battles, Smith said.

As the article notes, there are reasons why the U.S. military needs to be careful about civilian casualties, because casualties make us unpopular with the Afghan public and cause friction with the Karzai government. But then, the “Team America” image of left-wingers to the contrary, our military is always more careful about civilian casualties than it would be if it was 100% focused on killing the enemy. That’s the nature of our military even without formalizing an order in the rules of engagement, and moreso when you consider the rules of engagement typically ordered in most circumstances.

But McChrystal’s order strikes me as going way too far in taking us out of the business of fighting the enemy. First, we know full well that our jihadist enemies love to use innocent or captive civilians as human shields; that particular war crime is their standard M.O. and has been for many years (as it is against the Israelis as well) – I can recall that being their standard tactic at least as far back as Mogadishu. To give them a complete sanctuary by virtue of committing a war crime is a very bad precedent that diminishes the U.S. military’s effectiveness – thus prolonging the war – and only encourages more of the same barbarity. Second, publicly announcing that the strong preference for not shooting at people hiding behind civilians is being codified in a hard and fast rule only gives the enemy more encouragement and advice as to how to nullify our forces.

McChrystal “has said his measure of effectiveness will be the ‘number of Afghans shielded from violence,’ and not the number of militants killed.” Now, it was true in Vietnam and Iraq and is true in Afghanistan that enemy body counts alone are rarely the sole measure of success. You win by breaking the enemy’s will to fight and belief that it can accomplish anything by fighting, and while attrition alone can occasionally win a war, in the usual course you have to demonstrate the futility of resistance in other ways as well. But in any military engagement, simply playing defense cedes too much initiative to the enemy, and an enemy with the initiative and secure places to hide can always talk itself into continuing the fight.

What finally worked in Iraq was a 1-2-3 punch – more U.S. and especially local troops, expanded rules of engagement, and a dedication to clear and hold areas of the country and deny safe havens among the Iraqi people. McChrystal’s new rules, if accurately described here, seem to be a move in the opposite direction on both of the latter two scores, and a repeat of some of the less successful tactics tried in Iraq. That’s bad news all around.