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By W. Douglas Smith Contributor July 12, 2010

The recent Rolling Stone article, “The Runaway General,” focused on two interesting issues. While one received quite a bit of press, the other remains rather overlooked. The opinions of General McChrystal and his staff on President Obama and senior White House officials garnered a lion’s share of press. Fair enough; the dismissal of a commanding officer in the midst of a major offensive is big news. What has not been discussed with any depth, however, was the other focus of Michael Hastings’s piece: the current Rules of Engagement (ROE) for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The questions surrounding this issue go straight to the heart of the larger U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

In his article, Hastings gives voice to a number of U.S. soldiers who feel that the ROE are far too binding. A number of quotes echo one soldier’s assessment that, “[General McChrystal’s] rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.” With General Petraeus now in control of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, many wonder if the ROE will change. Indeed, many wonder if General Petreaus will shift the tactical course of the war in Afghanistan.

The ROE currently in force in Afghanistan stem largely from U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, COIN for short. The current counterinsurgency field manual was drafted in 2004 and revised and released again two years later. This second edition of the manual was a far more thoughtful, refined, and groundbreaking document. It was also largely authored by (then) Lieutenant General Petraeus.

The COIN FM is an incredible piece of work. It is an amalgamation of military history and political theory that serves to lay a doctrinal foundation for the changing face of warfare and the ways that the world’s armed forces can defeat a different kind of enemy. Concepts that are now found in common parlance, such as the “clear, hold and build” find their first voicing in American military tradition in this document. One of its cornerstones is to minimize civilian casualties, to “eliminate extremists without alienating the populace.” It is upon such doctrine that the current ROE in Afghanistan are built.

The question of appropriate force when dealing with insurgents is an old one. At its core, the issue is one of striking the appropriate balance of support for civilian populations, while instilling a sense of concern for what might happen if they assist the insurgents. There are other important considerations, to be sure, such as exacerbating ethnic tensions and fomenting future extremists through the use of force. At the end of the day, the question remains: how to hold the insurgents back with one hand while lifting up the civilian populace with the other.

Given that General Petreaus literally wrote the book on the COIN strategy, the question is how exactly he will implement it in his new command. There are some similarities between his previous experience using COIN, in Iraq, and the situation in Afghanistan. Perhaps the most striking is that of troop level increase, or a “surge.” Upon taking command of the Multinational Force in Iraq in January 2007, the plans for a surge in troops in that combat theatre were solidified and commenced. A corresponding increase in available forces is occurring now in Afghanistan.

That similarity aside, it is the differences between Iraq and Afghanistan that will prove the most important. Perhaps the most significant difference is host government buy-in and credibility. The COIN FM states that the “primary objective of any counterinsurgent is to foster the development of effective governance by a legitimate government.” Few would, at this juncture, deem the Karzai government to be one that is imbued with an overwhelming sense of legitimacy. Rumors of corruption, a failure to deliver essential services, and a faltering licit economy coupled with the electoral farce of last August have cast a huge shadow over the Karzai government. There are many in the U.S. government who now question the viability of Karzai as a partner for building a stable Afghanistan.

Considering the situation in Afghanistan, will General Petraeus change the strategy in Afghanistan? The Obama administration has been doing their best to assure everyone that a change in command does not mean a change in strategy. This line is likely more intended to reassure a fighting force and an increasingly restless American public than it is to dictate strategy to Gen. Petraeus. In reality, it seems reasonable that General Petraeus, with his intimate knowledge of COIN tactics and principles, will reassess and change several aspects of the ISAF strategy in Afghanistan – albeit quietly.

One change that we can expect to see is a more “gloves off” approach to the rules of engagement for ISAF troops. In his first year in command in Iraq deaths of non-combatants involving U.S.-led coalition forces increased significantly (from between 544 – 623 in 2006 to between 868 – 1,326 in 2007). This coincided with a 50 percent increase in inmate population between 2006 and 2007, indicating a noticeable uptick in incarceration. It seems reasonable that we might see a similar trend in Afghanistan, where the security situation is dire.

There is hope that commensurate with the increase in the use of force, there will be an increase in development projects, infrastructure repair and a renewed focus on local policing capabilities and rule of law. This already seems to be underway with the “civilian surge.” If human security can be increased while building the capacity of local governance and engendering an environment for legitimate political processes, then there stands a chance that the type of local government considered a success by COIN could emerge.

W. Douglas Smith has a masters degree from the Elliott School of International Affairs.

The photo in this article is being used under Creative Commons licensing. The original source can be found here.