Petraeus reviews directive meant to limit Afghan civilian deaths

Afghan children watch as a U.S. soldier patrols the village of Pir-e-Paymal in the Arghandab River valley, outside Kandahar.
Afghan children watch as a U.S. soldier patrols the village of Pir-e-Paymal in the Arghandab River valley, outside Kandahar. (Kevin Frayer/associated Press)
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010

To the U.S. soldiers getting pounded with thunderous mortar rounds in their combat outpost near Kandahar, it seemed like a legitimate request: allow them to launch retaliatory mortar shells or summon an airstrike against their attackers. The incoming fire was landing perilously close to a guard station, and the soldiers, using a high-powered camera, could clearly see the insurgents shooting.

The response from headquarters -- more than 20 miles away -- was terse. Permission denied. Battalion-level officers deemed the insurgents too close to a cluster of mud-brick houses, perhaps with civilians inside.

Although the insurgents stopped firing before anybody was wounded, the troops were left seething.

"This is not how you fight a war, at least not in Kandahar," said a soldier at the outpost who described the incident, which occurred last month, on the condition of anonymity. "We've been handcuffed by our chain of command."

With insurgent attacks increasing across Afghanistan, frustration about rules of engagement is growing among troops, and among some members of Congress. Addressing those concerns will be one of the most complicated initial tasks facing Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in the country.

The controversy pits the desire of top military officers to limit civilian casualties, something they regard as an essential part of the overall counterinsurgency campaign, against a widespread feeling among rank-and-file troops that restrictions on air and mortar strikes are placing them at unnecessary risk and allowing Taliban fighters to operate with impunity.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Petraeus promised to "look very hard" at the rules of engagement. He has since asked Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the top operational commander in Afghanistan, to review the rules. The examination will include discussions with troops around the country, military officials said.

At issue is a tactical directive issued last July by Petraeus's predecessor, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, that limits the use of air and mortar strikes against houses unless personnel are in imminent danger. The directive requires troops to take extensive measures, including a 48-hour "pattern of life" analysis with on-the-ground or aerial surveillance, to ensure that civilians are not in a housing compound before ordering an airstrike.

Senior U.S. military officials in Afghanistan and Washington said Petraeus almost certainly will not rescind the directive but instead will issue revised guidance in the coming days in an attempt to streamline procedures and ensure uniformity in how the rules are implemented.

Despite claims from some relatives of military personnel killed in Afghanistan that the directive has limited the ability of troops to defend themselves, the officials said a review by the U.S. military of every combat fatality over the past year has found no evidence that the rules restricted the use of lifesaving firepower.

"We have not found a single situation where a soldier has lost his life because he was not allowed to protect himself," one of the officials said.

If troops are in imminent danger, there is no restriction on the use of airstrikes or mortars. "The rules of engagement provide an absolute right of self-defense," the official said.

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