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New, clarified rules issued for Afghan fight

By KEVIN BARON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 4, 2010

ARLINGTON, Va. — In the plain-spoken language that is his trademark, the new commanding general in Afghanistan has issued his first set of fighting rules for combat troops, explicitly freeing them to defend themselves while at the same time ordering them to make the safety of Afghan civilians their first priority and continuing to restrict the use of air power and heavy artillery.

Just how many of the largely classified rules are really new was not immediately clear. Military officials acknowledged that most of Gen. David Petraeus’ "tactical directive" announced Wednesday repeats the substance of rules laid down by his predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal — strictures that some troops on the ground had complained were tying their hands and impeding their ability to go after Taliban insurgents.

"Prior to the use of [firepower], the commander approving the strike must determine that no civilians are present," Petraeus wrote, according to portions of the tactical directive released Wednesday by the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. "If unable to assess the risk of civilian presence, fires are prohibited" except in two specific cases that officials declined to release, citing operational security.

Petraeus added that his new directive "does not prevent commanders from protecting the lives of their men and women as a matter of self-defense where it is determined no other options are available to effectively counter the threat."

ISAF officials described the rules as more of a "clarification and reaffirmation" of previous directives. In a statement, they emphasized that "the directive firmly places the presence of civilians at the center of every decision involving the use of force."

But at least one aspect of the directive was clearly new: Petraeus ordered that subordinate commanders may not tack on even more restrictive rules "without my approval."

This came in apparent response to reports that some lower-level commanders had been overcautious in interpreting McChrystal’s combat rules.

One unit commander, for example, was reported to have forbidden his soldiers from chambering a round while on patrol. And as recently as Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that commanders in one Afghan region thought they were restricted in calling in airstrikes on a building depending on how many walls it had standing or the condition of its roof.

ISAF officials said Wednesday that under Petraeus’ directive, the condition of a structure is "irrelevant." The only concern was determining if civilians were present. And according to the rules of engagement, any time uniformed fighters are fired upon from inside a structure they can return fire in self-defense, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins.

Petraeus also ordered that all NATO troops must operate in tandem with Afghan forces, which he said would improve situational awareness, "alleviate anxiety" of local populations and boost the confidence of the Afghan soldiers and police.

"I expect every operation and patrol to be partnered," Petraeus wrote. Any activities that cannot be partnered must be cleared up the chain of command.

Soon after President Barack Obama tapped Petraeus to take command of the war last month, the general promised he would review McChrystal’s July 2009 rules governing how and when troops can fight the enemy — rules credited with sharply reducing NATO airstrikes and civilian Afghan casualties. But Petraeus said at the time it was unlikely he would change much.

Servicemembers have complained that too often they were not allowed to pursue or return fire on enemy fighters, and that the requirements to call in airstrikes were too limiting and endangered their lives.

"We must give our troopers the confidence to take all necessary actions when it matters most, while understanding the strategic consequences of civilian casualties," Petraeus wrote. "Indeed, I expect our troopers to exert their best judgment according to the situation on the ground. Beyond that, every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine has my full support as we take the fight to the enemy."

The U.S. concern over the backlash from civilian deaths is well-founded, according to a study released Tuesday by the New America Foundation in Washington. It found "a typical incident that caused two Afghan civilian deaths provoked six revenge attacks in the district by the Taliban and other militants," the Los Angeles Times reported.

baronk@stripes.osd.mil

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