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.
"There were several opportunities where we could have engaged with 40 mm ensuring zero [collateral damage estimate] on any buildings," the navigator testified. "The opportunity was definitely there for us to engage those two guys or even provide containment fires to try to slow their movement."
Investigator: "Did you ask to engage them?
Navigator: "Yes, sir."
Investigator: "And it was denied, right?
Navigator: "Yes, sir."
AC-130 commander: "I think he spoke with the Ground Force Commander and he said, 'No. No-go. Just maintain eyes-on.'"
Mr. Zinke, the former SEAL, said he talks to guys coming back home who are frustrated because the rules of engagement "are too restrictive."
"I've always been a champion of, if we are going to fight, fight to win," said Mr. Zinke, a candidate in the Republican primary for a House seat in Montana. "And you've got to give our troops that are in harm's way every tool and every advantage that is possible.
"And when you start restricting [rules of engagement] — when you limit our ability to fight at night, where you restrict the ground commanders' ability to react quickly without having to go up the chain of command and also when you're forced to bring along the Afghan forces who are notorious for the lack of security — then I think it puts troops in greater risk."
Mr. Kerry said last week that the security deal demonstrates to Mr. Karzai that Washington is listening to his concerns about civilian deaths.
"It's very important for President Karzai to know that the issues that he's raised with us for many years have been properly addressed, and it's very important for us to know that issues we have raised with him for a number of years are properly addressed," the secretary of state said.
Lisa Curtis, a foreign-policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said there are some pluses. Mr. Karzai is agreeing to some night raids, and Mr. Obama's language "does leave room for the U.S. to conduct counterterrorism missions against high-value targets," she said.
Left unsettled is Mr. Karzai's call for a delay in signing the agreement until the spring.
"That would almost certainly be a deal-killer from the U.S. perspective, as the U.S. needs to begin planning for any residual force presence no later than January 2014," Ms. Curtis said.
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