STUTTGART, Germany — Despite the complaints of some troops in Afghanistan that warfighting rules restrict their ability to defend themselves, the new commanding U.S. general will not be changing the Rules of Engagement, but officials say he will soon clarify actions soldiers may take to clear up confusion and alleviate frustration in the field.
Gen. David Petraeus, who became commander of all forces in Afghanistan on Sunday, is expected to issue a new tactical directive in a matter of days, according to Col. Rich Gross, the chief legal adviser to International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
Gross said confusion in the field over the existing tactical directive, which seeks to lessen civilian casualties by specifying when force can be used against Taliban insurgents, has resulted in some soldiers feeling as if they are fighting a war with their hands tied.
“I think troops just felt they couldn’t do anything,” Gross said. “That’s just not the truth.”
There have been reports of commanders in the field adding restrictions that further limit troops, which prompted Petraeus to order a review of warfighting procedures. Gross said the new directive will tell commanders not to add rules.
“The guidance is the guidance,” Gross said.
The Rules of Engagement are approved by the Secretary of Defense and NATO and describe the circumstances under which force can be initiated or continued.
The tactical directive, meanwhile, is the what, where and how to apply force. Its intent is to limit civilian casualties, but not troops’ right to self-defense.
In the case of Afghanistan, the existing tactical directive does not describe the appropriate use of force for every battlefield situation, but it is intended to get leaders at all levels to scrutinize and limit the use of force, such as close air support against residential compounds.
Petraeus sees the problem as one of “implementation and interpretation” as the tactical directive moves down the chain of command, Gross said.
A team assembled by Petraeus’ deputy, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, is working on the new directive.
Frustration has been mounting over the stricter tactical directive imposed last year by former ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Parents, politicians and some troops on the ground have been voicing frustration about soldiers being forced to take unnecessary risks because of overly restrictive regulations.
“I think what we will see (from the new directive) is all along they’ve always had ability to use force when they need to,” Gross said.
McChrystal wanted to reduce the number of civilian casualties caused by coalition airstrikes, which turned some Afghans against the Americans and their NATO allies. Those casualty numbers declined as ISAF forces scaled back on the use of air-to-ground assaults.
But if a unit is receiving fire from a civilian house, a commander can and should determine what the best course of action is in a counterinsurgency campaign, Gross said. Bombing the house probably is not the best option, but that doesn’t mean soldiers can’t take action and also guard against civilian casualties.
“We’re trying to get commanders to think about what force to use,” Gross said. “Absolutely take the fight to the enemy when you need to.”