The new U.S.-Afghanistan security agreement adds restrictions on already bureaucratic rules of engagement for American troops by making Afghan dwellings virtual safe havens for the enemy, combat veterans say.
The rules of engagement place the burden on U.S. air and ground troops to confirm with certainty that a Taliban fighter is armed before they can fire — even if they are 100 percent sure the target is the enemy. In some cases, aerial gunships have been denied permission to fire even though they reported that targets on the move were armed.
The proposed Bilateral Security Agreement announced Wednesday by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Secretary of State John F. Kerry all but prohibits U.S. troops from entering dwellings during combat. President Obama made the vow directly to Mr. Karzai.
“U.S. forces shall not enter Afghan homes for the purposes of military operations, except under extraordinary circumstances involving urgent risk to life and limb of U.S. nationals,” Mr. Obama pledged in a letter to the Afghan leader.
Ryan Zinke, who commanded an assault team within SEAL Team 6, said of the security deal: “The first people who are going to look at it and review it are the enemy we’re trying to fight. It’s going to be a document that can be used effectively against us. This is where we either fight or go home. What’s happening is we’re losing our ability to fight overseas.”
Mr. Karzai wants to defer the document’s signing to his successor in April’s presidential election, but Afghan legislators are pressing him to sign the deal now.
Even before the security agreement’s rules of engagement were drafted, troops complained about meeting the requirements of an increasingly burdensome checklist before they can fire. The rules grew stricter in 2010 after a series of mistaken U.S. bombings killed civilians and special operations troops raided villages and homes at night.
The rules of engagement today also place restrictions on dwelling assaults, but Mr. Obama’s language of “extraordinary circumstances involving urgent risk of life and limb” sets the bar much higher.
Said retired Army Col. Ken Allard, now a military analyst: “Call me crazy, but what on earth is the point of remaining there under these [rules of engagement], much less subjecting American soldiers to another set of restrictions that make sense only in proportion to your distance from the combat zone?”
The security agreement lays out the legal status of U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan after the end of 2014, when all international combat forces are set to leave the country. As many as 18,000 international troops — including 8,000 from the U.S. — will remain for 10 years to train and assist Afghan security forces and hunt terrorists.
Terrorist-hunting missions will require U.S. personnel to engage in combat by accompanying Afghans on counterterrorism raids and supplying close-air support. That is why the rules for when U.S. troops can and cannot fire on the enemy or enter a dwelling remain important.
A rare look at today’s classified rules of engagement is contained in the huge investigative file on the Afghan Taliban’s downing of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter last year that killed 30 U.S. troops, including 17 members of SEAL Team 6. The report notes service members’ frustration at seeing people they knew were Taliban fighters during the August 2012 operation in Afghanistan’s Tangi Valley, but they were denied permission to shoot.
An AH-64 Apache gunship pilot said he saw the spot from where Taliban operatives fired the rocket-propelled grenade that felled the chopper.
“Due to [rules of engagement] and tactical directives, I couldn’t fire at the building where I thought the [shooter] was, so I aimed directly to the west of the building,” the pilot testified, according to transcripts obtained by The Washington Times.
During the battle that preceded the shootdown, the crew of an AC-130 gunship spotted two armed Taliban fighters who were moving into new positions.