Given these timetables, the Taliban could simply run down the clock on NATO and emerge intact to conquer the country as soon as the West gives up and goes home. While waiting for the NATO troops to leave, and exploiting the stringent Rules of Engagement to avoid the worst NATO has to offer, the Taliban could continue to intimidate local officials, cooperate with the opium trade and set off the odd suicide bomb or improvised explosive device, just to remind the NATO countries what it is they are so eager to get away from.
Petraeus, recognizing this, is determined to redouble the efforts of the NATO troops under his command, not merely to secure Afghanistan and protect aid projects — though those things are of course important — but to actively seek out and destroy the Taliban, using the full weight of the firepower NATO has available to do it. To that end, General Petraeus has struck a sensible compromise position.
He has “clarified” the Rules of Engagement put in place by General McChrystal before him. American and NATO troops will be permitted to call down artillery and tactical air power down on buildings that enemy troops are known to hiding in if there is reasonable probability that the structure contains no civilians. Under the McChrystal rules, this was still permitted, but many field-level commanders were confused by the stringent rules and either felt that no strikes were permitted or chose to never call in a strike to avoid any potential complications if they had interpreted the rules incorrectly.
Since General Petraeus can credibly claim that the clarification does not reflect a watering-down of the Rules of Engagement, he will avoid antagonizing the Afghan government and will blunt any criticism that the Allies are about to start indiscriminately bombing the whole of Afghanistan. But by issuing his tactical directive, which according to Stars and Stripes will clearly explain “what, where and how to apply force” in a way that limits civilian casualties without compromising the ability of the troops to fight the enemy, Petraeus hopes to improve the morale of the troops under his command, who have felt like they have been asked to win a war with one hand tied behind their back. Petraeus wants them to pursue the enemy “relentlessly,” but carefully.
Clarifying the Rules of Engagement will not be enough to turn the tide in Afghanistan, America’s longest and arguably toughest war. But it is a step in the right direction. The troops, if given the mandate to win and the political support from the Obama administration necessary to convince the Taliban that America and its allies in the free world are not about to cut and run, this long, hard war may yet see an imperfect, but favorable, outcome.
Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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