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Consider Relaxed ROE in Afghanistan, but Don’t Change the Strategy

Posted on June 27 2010 12:00 pm
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Many people would prefer rules of engagement that simply allowed our soldiers to “kill the enemy.” But alas, war — and especially counterinsurgency warfare — is a lot more complicated than that.

Michael van der Galien heralds a Fox News report that General Petraeus plans to “modify the rules of engagement [ROE] to make it easier for U.S. troops to engage in combat with the enemy.”

“American forces in Afghanistan have to be free to do whatever is necessary to win this war,” Michael writes. So “the sooner the ROE are changed, therefore, the better.”

Implicit in Michael’s statement is that our current rules of engagement are somehow preventing us from winning the war. But while the ROE may have to change — and they can and do change in every conflict, depending on battlefield conditions — it’s important to understand why the U.S. military has adopted very restrictive rules of engagement.

It’s because we are waging a classic counterinsurgency in which force restraint is as important as — and perhaps more important than — the decisive exercise of force. The objective is not to kill your way to victory, because in counterinsurgency warfare, that really isn’t possible, as General Petraeus himself has acknowledged.

Instead, the objective is to secure the population and isolate the enemy: Because when the enemy is isolated and deprived of his means of support within the population, he ceases to be factor.

Insurgents, remember, are not a regular army that wages conventional warfare. To the contrary: they are a guerilla paramilitary outfit that wages irregular warfare. And they feed off of a terrorized and fearful citizenry and weak and ineffective governments.

That’s why it’s so important for our troops to exercise soldierly restraint: because we don’t want to antagonize and drive away the very people whose confidence and trust we need to secure.

Is exercising soldierly restraint difficult and challenging for our troops? Absolutely. It often means subjecting our fighting men and women to greater jeopardy than we would like. Still, it’s the right and necessary thing to do because it is integral to achieving victory in Afghanistan.

Moreover, retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, Jr.’s commentary to the contrary notwithstanding, it’s not clear that the current ROE are “getting soldiers killed” in any greater numbers than would, ultimately, an alternate set of ROE which presaged a different strategy. Indeed, according to the Brooking Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon,

[The] evidence suggests it’s not true. Roadside bombs, against which firepower is tactically irrelevant, overwhelmingly remain the most frequent cause of casualties to coalition troops.

The percent of casualties from firefights is up, but modestly — and in any event McChrystal favored allowing troops in danger to call in supporting firepower. Meanwhile, the policies have reduced civilian casualties from coalition forces, an important step toward winning greater support from Afghans.

So sure, review the current rules of engagement and, if warranted, change or relax them. But let’s not abandon our overall counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, because that’s the only possible way the United States can win there.

You can follow John Guardiano on Twitter: @JohnRGuardiano

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