Having recently returned from more than two weeks in Afghanistan, I was struck by how overblown the whole debate over “Rules of Engagement” has become. Back home, bloggers are becoming apoplectic, claiming that, as one website put it, “Obama’s Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan Costing Our Troops Lives.” From such hyperbolic reporting, you would think that American soldiers and Marines are routinely being killed in firefights that they might have won had they been able to summon air or artillery support. Not so. The biggest killer of our troops is IEDs, which no amount of bombing can stop. In fact, too much expenditure of firepower can make it harder for our troops to uncover these deadly booby traps, because it alienates the population — the prime source of intelligence.
The National Bureau of Economic Research has just released an interesting paper on the effects of civilian casualties. It is written by four social scientists, one of them a U.S. Army colonel (Joe Felter) currently serving in Afghanistan. Through a careful study of collateral-damage incidents, they determined that every coalition-caused civilian death results in “6 additional violent incidents in an average sized district in the following 6 weeks.” In other words, being too indiscriminate in the application of firepower creates more enemies than our operations can remove. Which is precisely why General Stanley McChrystal — not President Obama — instituted tight limits on the use of force.
His restrictions have been in part responsible for a decline in American air strikes and in Afghan civilian deaths. As CNN notes: “Civilians killed by U.S. and NATO forces ‘reduced considerably’ to 210 during the period [the first half of the year] because of restrictions imposed on the use of airstrikes. … Deaths in airstrikes dropped by more than 50 percent to 94.” That means, in effect, that U.S. troops created fewer enemies for themselves than they have in the past.
The risks incurred by U.S. troops under this policy are somewhat ameliorated by the fact that their numbers have tripled over the past year. That means they can win more fights without having to call in air support. But there is no doubt that the tight restrictions on air strikes have somewhat increased the risks faced by ground forces, even though McChrystal always made it plain that troops have a right and a duty to act in self-defense.
This has resulted in a handful of highly publicized cases, recycled many times in news accounts, in which troops complain that they were prevented from calling in badly needed air strikes. It appears likely that McChrystal’s broad directives, while well-intentioned, were interpreted too bureaucratically and too narrowly by some units. That is something that General David Petraeus and his operational commander, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, are now studying to determine whether adjustments are necessary.
But don’t expect Petraeus to declare Afghanistan a free-fire zone. Nor should he. He is mindful, as McChrystal was, that the Soviets killed more than a million Afghans in the 1980s and still lost the war. The “kill them all” approach to counterinsurgency seldom if ever works, and it is certainly not an option for the armed forces of a liberal superpower that must operate under the glare of media scrutiny. Our armed forces must strike a delicate balance between aggressively hunting insurgents and sparing the population among whom the insurgents hide. That is hard to do, and it requires tremendous discipline and fortitude on the part of the troops, but it is the only way to win a war like this one.