Sunday, March 07, 2010


EDITORIAL: Ready, aim, hold your fire

Our troops are saddled with dangerous rules of engagement

The recent battle in Marjah in Afghanistan's Helmand province was a key test case for new rules of engagement that emphasized protecting civilians rather than killing insurgents. The town was taken, but whether that was because of the new rules or despite them remains to be seen.

The rules of engagement are probably the most restrictive ever seen for a war of this nature. NATO forces cannot fire on suspected Taliban fighters unless they are clearly visible, armed and posing a direct threat. Buildings suspected of containing insurgents cannot be targeted unless it is certain that civilians are not also present. Air strikes and night raids are limited, and prisoners have to be released or transferred within four days, making for a 96-hour catch-and-release program.

In Marjah, the enemy quickly adapted to the rules, which led to bizarre circumstances such as Taliban fighters throwing down their weapons when they were out of ammunition and taunting coalition troops with impunity or walking in plain view with women behind them carrying their weapons like caddies. If World War II had been fought with similar rules, the battles would still be raging. Paradoxically, America's most successful post-conflict reconstructions were in Germany and Japan, where enemy-occupied towns like Marjah were flattened without a second thought.

U.S. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the NATO commander, said, "The Afghan people are at the center of our mission. In reality, they are our mission." Yet protecting civilians is difficult in an unconventional conflict in which the battlefield has no front
lines. As an anonymous Pentagon planner told Time magazine, "It's harder to separate the enemy from the people when they are the people." Helmand province is part of the Taliban's core area; they see the fight as homeland defense.

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