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Petraeus Clarifies Rules To Avoid Civilian Casualties

  • RFE/RL

U.S. General David Petraeus (file photo)

U.S. General David Petraeus (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- The American commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan has clarified rules of engagement governing how troops should conduct warfare and interact with Afghan civilians.

Like his predecessor, General David Petraeus says his top priority is protecting Afghan civilians. But he has also emphasized soldiers' right to self-defense.

Based on excerpts of the directive that were released publicly on August 4, Petraeus -- who assumed command in early July after General Stanley McChrystal was sacked by President Barack Obama for making critical comments about administration officials -- will continue to operate under the strategy that McChrystal laid out in his own directive last year.

Tad Oelstrom, who directs the National Security Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and spent 35 years in the U.S. Air Force before retiring with the rank of lieutenant general, says he sees "very little difference from the McChrystal approach" in Petraeus's new directive.

"Certainly, as a new commander on scene there was an expectation that he was [going to] either have to clarify to the troops, whether or not the strategy that was in place was going to be his continuing focus, or whether or not there was going to be major changes or nuanced changes to it," Oelstrom says. "In my mind, this becomes kind of the nuanced changes to the existing strategy."

Striking A Balance

Like McChrystal, Petraeus reminds the troops to try and make a good impression on the local population, advising them to remove their mirrored sunglasses, "drink lots of tea," and "be a good guest."

McChrystal believed protecting the civilian population was a key tool in winning the war -- he felt that every civilian casualty could generate anti-NATO, pro-Taliban feelings among the victim's family. Under his command, NATO airstrikes decreased significantly, along with civilian casualties.

But many in the military, including fighting troops themselves, complained that the emphasis on civilian protection came at the cost of force vulnerability and lack of gains against the enemy. Troops expressed frustration that they couldn't call in air strikes on buildings where suspected Taliban were hiding, or fire on militant locations without being fired on first.

In the new directive, Petraeus tries to strike a balance. "We must employ all assets to ensure our [troops'] safety, keeping in mind the importance of protecting the Afghan people as we do," he writes.
A U.S. soldier is greeted by an Afghan man in the Arghandab Valley of Kandahar province.

Oelstrom says the new rules may quiet some of the criticism, but adds that "only time will tell." The classified section of the directive likely contains more specific guidance on what exactly troops can and cannot do in certain situations, he said, which could have a mixed effect on the battlefield.

It could please some troops for eliminating ambiguity, but irritate others for eliminating their ability to make split-second decisions in the heat of battle.

Another excerpt of the Petraeus directive reads: "We can't win without fighting but we also cannot kill or capture our way to victory. Moreover, if we kill civilians or damage their property in the course of our operations, we will create more enemies than our operations, we will create more enemies than our operations eliminate. That's exactly what the Taliban want. Don't fall into their trap."

The Taliban also, apparently, want their own fighters to start respecting civilians. The group issued its own "code of conduct" in late July that emphasizes protecting Afghan citizens and forbidding the seizure of money or weapons.

The admonition comes with the caveat, however, that if the civilians are working for the Afghan government or helping international troops, they are "supporters of the infidels" and can be killed.

Still, Oelstrom sees something potentially significant in the militant group's new position. "In my mind, that is reinforcing to us that the Taliban see the impact of respect for civilians and doing as much as possible under a conduct of wartime conditions to reduce casualties amongst the civilians and it also reinforces the fact that this might be the right strategy that is having a good effect on the people of Afghanistan," he says.

The new rules of engagement also underscore the need for patrols to partner with an Afghan unit, warning that, "civilian casualties can result from a misunderstanding or ignorance of local customs and behaviors."

Oelstrom says he doesn't believe the new directive is related to the release last month of classified war reports by the WikiLeaks whistle-blower site.

"This has been done by every commander in major operations," he says, adding, "It is an expectation that they clarify to their troops periodically what the strategy is."

written by Heather Maher with agency reports