Memo to right-wing media: Petraeus has spoken favorably on Afghanistan's rules of engagement


Following the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the right-wing media have falsely suggested that Gen. David Petraeus, who will replace McChrystal, does not support the rules of engagement being used in conducting the war. In fact, Petraeus has repeatedly expressed his support both for the rules, and for the principal of prioritizing protection of civilian lives.

Right-wing media falsely suggest Petraeus does not support current rules of engagement in Afghanistan

Carlson asks if Petraeus said "what he really felt" to Obama -- that "we need to possibly change the rules of engagement so that some civilians may actually die so that we can actually move forward." On the June 24 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Gretchen Carlson asked if, during the meeting with President Obama in which Obama asked Petraeus to take over as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Petraeus, said "what he really felt? Did he say that we need to possibly change the rules of engagement going on in Afghanistan so that some civilians may actually die so that we can actually move forward in this war?"

Miller: Petraeus "is going to come in and commence the killing." On the June 23 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, guest Dennis Miller said, "Petraeus is going to come in and he's going to commence the killing. And we've got some Jane Austen rules of engagement in Afghanistan, and if he can tighten those up a little, Petraeus is going to be a help to us there."

Coulter: Petraeus was the "right decision for the wrong reason" because troops are "chafing at these very restrictive rules."On the June 23 edition of Fox News' Hannity, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter called replacing McChrystal with Petraeus "the right decision for the wrong reason," because "troops in Afghanistan" have been "chafing at these very restrictive rules on which insurgents they can choose. ... That is McChrystal's strategy."

In fact, Petraeus has expressed support for the rules of engagement

McChrystal issued rules of engagement for Afghanistan calling for troops to avoid "excessive use of force." In declassified portions of a revised "Tactical Directive" issued in July 2009 to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, McChrystal wrote that American troops should avoid "causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people" and that "excessive use of force resulting in an alienated population will produce far greater risks" than the "carefully controlled and disciplined employment of force."[NATO, 7/6/09]

In executing the Iraq war, Petraeus explained his support for "protecting the Iraqi population" so that "your actions don't create more enemies than you take off the streets." In an August 2007 NPR interview, Petraeus explained how he "balance[d] protecting the Iraqi population against protecting American forces":

Protecting the population really has to be the top priority. It's job number one. In fact, as we embark on the new strategy here in recent months, that has been the emphasis, to try to improve the security for the population, certainly with Iraqi security forces, but that became our number one priority.

The challenge is, of course, how to do that while still going after the bad guys, taking them down, but doing it in a way, ideally, as we used to discuss in the 101st Airborne Division: How can you do this so that you can end up with fewer enemies at the end of each day or each week than you started with; in other words, that your actions don't create more enemies than you take off the streets?

In a March 17 hearing, Petraeus noted the "loss of civilian life" "was threatening to undermine" Afghanistan strategy and described the rules of engagement as being similar to what "we went through ... in Iraq." In a March 17 congressional hearing (accessed via Nexis), Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) asked Petraeus, "Would you say that these rules of engagement that we are in a situation where maybe, at some point in time, they need to be reconsidered?" Petraeus responded, regarding "the issue of the tactical directive issued first by General McKiernan and then refined by General McChrystal":

This was issued because the loss of innocent civilian life in the course of military operations was threatening to undermine the very strategy, the very policy that we were endeavoring to carry out in Afghanistan.

And after an enormous amount of, again, very careful analysis and review and so forth, this directive was published. Now, right up front in it, it says that no one is ever denied the right to self- defense, nor will we ever hesitate, if someone is pinned down by fire, in responding to ensure that those troopers never feel as if they're fighting with their hands tied behind their back.

Having said that, there are tactical situations in which, if you're not pinned down and decisively engaged and can break contact because you don't know precisely who is in the house from which there may be a fire on you, where you hesitate in dropping a bomb or reconsider because there may be innocent civilians. And we have had a number of cases in which that has happened. And there cases recently, in fact, again, and we have to reduce these cases.

But we will not do it by risking the lives of our soldiers. And so that's the balance that we have to strike. This is not uncommon to us. We went through this in Iraq as well. And there are cases where you literally back out of a fight rather than continue to prosecute it, as long as you can do that, if you're not sure exactly who might be on the receiving end of a 500-pound bomb or attack helicopter or hellfires or something like that.

So that's what we're trying to achieve.

In a June 17 hearing, Petraeus described the rules of engagement as "living our values." From a June 17 Senate hearing (accessed via Nexis) in which Petraeus discussed the rules of engagement:

SEN. JOHN THUNE [R-SD]: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

General, is there any indication, though, that the -- that the Taliban are engaging in direct- or indirect-fire attacks more often and with greater effect now that they know -- or that with this -- that there is potentially a diminished threat from the air? Do you see any evidence to that --

GEN. PETRAEUS: In -- well, first of all, counterinsurgency is -- counterinsurgents -- or, I'm sorry. Excuse me. First of all, insurgents historically have always tried to use our rules of engagement against us. We know that. They did that in Iraq periodically. We had people in Iraq literally pushing through crowds shooting at us. This happened in -- this happened in a number of other cases in recent decades as well, in these kinds of situations.

But, you know, we are about living our values. And every time we have taken expedient measures, not only has it been wrong, we have also paid a price for it in terms of it biting us in the backside in the long run. And so that's -- again, we have to be aware that they will use our reluctance to kill innocent civilians, if you will, or to risk the lives of innocent civilians in the course of these operations.

Having said that, frankly, they generally are not engaging us directly as much as they are coming at us indirectly. They realized some years ago if -- certainly last year -- that if they engage our troopers in a direct firefight, that they will lose. And so they are using IEDs in much larger numbers than they have in the past. And that's where we see this -- the increase in the violence incidents.

Afghan leaders do "not expect [McChrystal's] replacement to change strategy." A June 24 Reuters article reported that Afghan leaders "did not expect the shake-up to bring strategic changes." According to the article, General Zaher Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan defense ministry, said "We expect [Petraeus] to follow McChrystal's assessment, which has reduced civilian casualties, brought down arrests and house searches and involved coordination on operations."

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.