A key to the U.S. approach to fighting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is this seemingly backward logic: The more aggressively you protect your own troops, the less secure they may be.
The idea is that troops who put themselves at risk to protect innocents ultimately will help decrease violence against Americans. That’s because every time U.S. forces inadvertently kill or wound a noncombatant, it outrages the families and communities of the victims and erodes support for the battle against militants, strategists say.
So protecting civilians isn’t only moral, it’s considered good strategy.
The idea is enshrined in the 2006 U.S. Army and Marine Corps field manual on counterinsurgency, or COIN, which says: “Ultimate success in COIN is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force.”
That partly explains why the U.S.-led NATO command in Afghanistan is considering recognizing soldiers for “courageous restraint” if they avoid using force that could endanger innocent lives — a proposal drawing fire in some military quarters.
It also shows why President Obama, at his news conference last week with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, emphasized the importance — and the complications — of avoiding civilian deaths and injuries. Sometimes the strategy puts troops at greater immediate risk, he noted, but “that’s a burden that we’re willing to bear.”
The specific rules for when troops may use deadly force in Afghanistan are classified, but commanders over the past year have publicly announced stricter guidelines limiting the use of airstrikes and night raids.
Although the policy is meant to advance the U.S. and NATO cause by building Afghan support at the grass roots, many soldiers and their families worry that by emphasizing restraint, the Pentagon is showing too much concern for the safety of foreign civilians and tying the hands of its own fighting force.
Some lawmakers also have expressed alarm.
Rep. Walter B. Jones, a North Carolina Republican who opposes U.S. involvement in the war, said he is unconvinced after being briefed this month on the specific rules about when U.S. troops can use deadly force.
“You see these kids with their legs blown off and you just hope they were given a chance,” he said. “They are too restricted. … If you’re going to send the U.S. military to fight, then let them fight.”
The complicating factor, however, is that the final outcome of this fight will depend less on arms than on ideas, in the view of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, and others who say that military force alone cannot defeat the Taliban or stabilize the country.
Iraq war veteran John Nagl, who helped write the 2006 counterinsurgency manual and is now president of the Center for a New American Security, acknowledges that opinion is divided on the wisdom of making protection of civilians the first priority.
“This issue is at the heart of counterinsurgency and of the difficulty that soldiers have in conducting counterinsurgency,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s one of the fundamental dilemmas we dealt with in writing the counterinsurgency manual. The fact is that to achieve the mission, individual soldiers have to accept more risk.”
Mr. Obama last week spelled it out in stark terms.