Advice for General Petraeus on the Rules of Engagement: It’s Neither/Nor, Not Either/Or

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Advice for General Petraeus on the Rules of Engagement: It’s Neither/Nor, Not Either/Or

Recently, we've been flooded with news stories and debate about the "rules of engagement" for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Now-discredited war commander General Stanley McChrystal, we've been told, instituted fiercely restrictive rules of engagement to lessen the number of Afghan civilians who died or were wounded at the hands of American forces, and to "protect the people," just as the "hearts and minds" part of counterinsurgency doctrine tells us should be done. Specifically, he made it far harder for U.S. troops under fire to call in air strikes or artillery support if civilians might possibly be in the vicinity of any firefight. Grumbling about this among those troops, according to Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone reporter whose piece took McChrystal down, had already reached something close to fever pitch by the time the general and his special ops cronies began mouthing off in frustration in Paris.

Articles in which troops or mid-level officers claim to be "handcuffed by our chain of command" are now almost as common as implicitly critical stories about the dismal failure of McChrystal's counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. General David Petraeus, on being given command of the war effort, turned immediately to those rules of engagement, promising not to change them, but to thoroughly review and "clarify" their "implementation and interpretation."

What this means, we don't yet know, but we should know one thing: the present discussion of counterinsurgency and of those rules of engagement makes little sense. They are being presented as a kind of either/or option - kill us or kill them - when it would be more accurate to say that it's a neither/nor situation.

After all, in another, less protective part of McChrystal's counterinsurgency war, he was bulking up special operations forces in the country and sending them out on night raids searching for Taliban mid-level leaders. These raids continue to cause a cascade of civilian casualties, as well as an increasing uproar of protest among outraged Afghans. In addition, even with McChrystal's tight rules for normal grunts, stories about the deaths of civilians, private security guards, and Afghan soldiers from air strikes, misplaced artillery fire, checkpoint shootings, and those night raids continue to pour out, followed by the usual American initial denials and then formulaic apologies for loss of life.

Whatever the rules, civilians continue to die in striking numbers at the hands of guerrillas and of American forces, and here's the thing: tighten those rules, loosen them, fiddle with them, bend them, evade them, cancel them - at some level it's all still neither/nor, not either/or. In any counterinsurgency war where guerrillas, faced with vastly superior fire power, fight from cover and work hard to blend in with the populace, where the counterinsurgents are foreigners about as alien from the land they are to "protect" as humanly possible, and fight, in part, from on high or based on "intelligence" from others about a world they can't fathom, civilians will die. Lots of civilians. Continually. Whatever rules you make up. The issue isn't the "rules of engagement." No rules of engagement will alter the fact that civilian death is the central fact of such wars.

It's time to stop talking about those rules and start talking about the madness of making counterinsurgency the American way of war. It wasn't always so. Not so long ago, after all, it was considered a scandal that, post-Vietnam, the U.S. military rebuilt its all-volunteer force without rewriting or reconsidering its counterinsurgency manual. The high command, in fact, let counterinsurgency go to hell, exactly where they thought it deserved to rest in peace, and were focused instead on preventing Soviet armies from pouring through Germany's Fulda Gap (something they were conveniently never likely to do). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. military would continue to focus for some years on Colin Powell's doctrine of overwhelming force, decisive victory, and quick exit.

Then, of course, Iraq happened and decisive victory ("mission accomplished") soured into decisive disaster. It was at this moment, in 2006, that Generals Petraeus and James "Mad Dog" Mattis (now respectively Afghan war commander and head of Centcom) dusted off the old, failed Vietnam-era counterinsurgency doctrine and made it sexy again. They oversaw the writing of a whole new guidebook for the Army and Marines, 472 pages of advice that even got its own (university press) trade edition, and became the toast of Washington and the Pentagon.

So, after being buried and disinterred, COIN, as its known, is once again the reigning monarch of American war-fighting doctrines as the Pentagon prepares for one, two, three Iraqs or Afghanistans - and the scandal is that (surprise, surprise!) it's not working. This should, of course, hardly have been news. The history of counterinsurgency warfare isn't exactly a success story, or our present COINistas wouldn't have taken their doctrine largely from failed counterinsurgency wars in Vietnam and Algeria, among other places. It's not so encouraging, after all, when the main examples you have before you are defeats.

Our generals might have better spent their time studying the first modern war of this sort. It took place in early nineteenth century Spain when the Islamic fundamentalists of that moment - Catholic peasants and their priests - managed to stop Napoleon's army (the high-tech force of the moment) in its tracks. Just check out Goya's "Disasters of War" series, if you want to see how grim it was. And it's never gotten much better.

Looked at historically, counterinsurgency was largely the war-fighting option of empires, of powers that wanted to keep occupying their restive colonies forever and a day. Of course, past empires didn't spend much time worrying about "protecting the people." They knew such wars were brutal. That was their point. As George Orwell summed such campaigns up in 1946 in his essay "Politics and the English Language": "Defenseless villagers are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set afire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification." The rise of anti-colonialism and nationalism after World War II should have made counterinsurgency history. Certainly, there is no place for occupations and the wars that go with them in the twenty-first century.

Unfortunately, none of this has been obvious to Washington or our leading generals. Of course, if they can rewrite the Army's counterinsurgency manual for a new century, any of us can, so let me offer my one-line rewrite of their 472 pages. It's simple and guaranteed to save trees as well as lives: "When it comes to counterinsurgency, don't do it."

Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. His other most recent book is The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books). Previous books include: The End of Victory Culture: a History of the Cold War and Beyond, The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing.  To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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