In confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee today, General David Petraeus has said he has been considering relaxing some of the rules of engagement that have prevented American troops from perhaps taking life-saving measures to defend themselves. According to the New York Times, Petraeus told the Senate Committee: “I see it as a moral imperative to bring all assets to bear to protect our men and women in uniform. Those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation.”
General Stanley McChrystal enacted tougher rules to prevent more civilian casualties, but the consequence for such a strategy prevented American troops from taking necessary action to prevent their own loss of life, according to a report filed by Business Week. Troops are dying at the fastest rate during the entire nine-year old war.
Rules of engagement are how troops conduct responses to their immediate environment. One such example is “Do no fire unless fired upon.” In Afghanistan, the rules of engagement have led to fewer civilian casualties from military operations, according to statistics from NATO and their troops in a report filed by Reuters. Military casualties are down 44.4 percent among NATO troops in a three-month period, compared to the same period last year. Fewer civilians are being killed by air strikes.
The unfortunate side effect is that civilian losses from the actual Taliban have risen 36 percent in the same period, despite a surge in troops. NATO claims the increase in troop loss is because the surge has placed more troops in harm’s way, and not because of the rules of engagement.
NATO says one thing, while our own military commander says another. Petraeus also explained to the Senate that he had the backing of the civilian government in Afghanistan. NATO says that the rules of engagement are just fine the way they are currently.
Surely if American forces are given more liberties with which to fire back, there will likely be more civilian casualties, as the Taliban has no problem using non-combatants as possible human shields. Yes, there will be more civilian casualties should there be more bullets involved, and more air strikes with which to back up the ground war.
There have always been numerous civilian casualties in war time. The North Vietnamese government estimates that 1.1 million civilians died in the Vietnam War, according to a press release issued in 1995. World War II saw civilian casualties reach epic proportions, when you consider 9 million dead in China, 2.5 million dead in Poland, and 19 million in the Soviet Union.
What will be an acceptable loss in terms of civilian numbers in Afghanistan? And, will those losses be acceptable in terms of saving future lives that the Taliban could render lifeless by their own actions? That is for the leaders of the war to decide. Yes, determining who lives and who dies in a war is perhaps the most difficult decision to make. If the war is won and Afghanistan is liberated from the Taliban forever, then those lives will not have been in vain.
The New York Times, Business Week, and Reuters all contributed information for this article.