The House Armed Services Committee has quietly received a confidential briefing about the rules of engagement used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan after numerous members expressed concern that they handcuff U.S. troops in combat.
The briefing was held Sept. 22, said a source with knowledge of the committee’s schedule, speaking
on background due to the sensitivity of the issue. A spokesperson for the committee confirmed it occurred but declined to say when or who testified, citing its classified nature.
The briefing was held as a growing number of service members, veterans and military families
express concern that the rules of engagement — guidelines for how and when U.S. forces can use force — handcuff service members in combat, putting them at unnecessary risk.
Specifics of the ROE are classified, but they have come under sharp criticism since July 2009, when Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, issued guidelines directing “leaders at all levels to scrutinize and limit the use of force like close-air support against residential compounds and other locations likely to produce civilian casualties.” He also restricted the use of air-to-ground munitions and indirect fire, such as artillery rounds,
The briefing was originally called for this spring by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. He said active-duty Marines in his district, which includes Camp Lejeune, and the families of troops killed in combat contact him regularly about the issue.
Committee Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton, D.-Mo., agreed in August to hold the briefing, telling Jones and two other lawmakers who expressed concern about the issue — Reps. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., and Jeff Miller, R.-Fla. —that he shared their “deep interest in ensuring that the members of the
armed forces serve in conditions which allow them to act in self-defense and provide sufficient force protection.”
In an interview, Jones said he could not comment on specifics of the briefing, but is still skeptical the ROE are fair to U.S. troops. He has not spoken to Army Gen. David Petraeus, the current commander in Afghanistan, but was told by military officials that he is free to do so, he said.“I sadly say that I don’t think anything is going to change,” Jones said. “I think the policy that is in place now will probably be the policy of the future unless things on the ground change significantly. The military is making the call. I still believe that a soldier or Marine needs not be handcuffed.”’
Critics of McChyrstal’s directive had hoped that the rules of engagement would be altered this summer, after he resigned in June under pressure after incendiary comments from his staff appeared in the media. But Petraeus issued a tactical directive update in August that reinforced many of the
Declassified portions released by military officials in Afghanistan stress the need to not kill Afghan civilians while hunting insurgents. “We must continue — indeed, redouble —
our efforts to reduce the loss of innocent life to an absolute minimum,” the Petraeus directive said. “Every Afghan civilian death diminishes our cause. If we use excess force or operate contrary to our counterinsurgency principles, tactical victories may prove to be strategic setbacks.”
Retired Marine 1st Sgt. John Bernard, a frequent critic of the ROE whose son was killed in Afghanistan last year, said he isn’t surprised that the discussion was held behind closed doors, and thinks it needs to be brought out into the open. U.S. officials need to not only consider the restrictions placed on U.S. troops, but whether the counterinsurgency doctrine that drives them is
effective, he said.
“The suggestion that you can’t openly discuss the rules of engagement is ridiculous,” he said. “The bloody Taliban knows what they are. They’re absolutely ruthless, and they know when they can act and when they can’t act. The people who should be interested in having that discussion aren’t interested, so nothing is going to change.”