The recent battle in Marjah in Afghanistan’s Helmand province was a key test case for new rules of engagement that emphasized protecting civilians rather than killing insurgents. The town was taken, but whether that was because of the new rules or despite them remains to be seen.
The rules of engagement are probably the most restrictive ever seen for a war of this nature. NATO forces cannot fire on suspected Taliban fighters unless they are clearly visible, armed and posing a direct threat. Buildings suspected of containing insurgents cannot be targeted unless it is certain that civilians are not also present. Air strikes and night raids are limited, and prisoners have to be released or transferred within four days, making for a 96-hour catch-and-release program.
In Marjah, the enemy quickly adapted to the rules, which led to bizarre circumstances such as Taliban fighters throwing down their weapons when they were out of ammunition and taunting coalition troops with impunity or walking in plain view with women behind them carrying their weapons like caddies. If World War II had been fought with similar rules, the battles would still be raging. Paradoxically, America’s most successful post-conflict reconstructions were in Germany and Japan, where enemy-occupied towns like Marjah were flattened without a second thought.
U.S. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the NATO commander, said, “The Afghan people are at the center of our mission. In reality, they are our mission.” Yet protecting civilians is difficult in an unconventional conflict in which the battlefield has no front lines. As an anonymous Pentagon planner told Time magazine, “It’s harder to separate the enemy from the people when they are the people.” Helmand province is part of the Taliban’s core area; they see the fight as homeland defense.
The fact that the Taliban routinely torture and kill noncombatants as a matter of policy is not only lost in this debate, it is deemed irrelevant. The Taliban’s excesses are discounted because the Taliban are the bad guys. Coalition troops are the good guys and are held to a higher standard.
Unfortunately, the higher the United States raises the bar, the more difficult the fight becomes, and the more that is promised, the greater mistakes count. On Feb. 14, 12 people, six of them children, were killed when two U.S. rockets slammed into a home outside Marjah. On Feb. 22, an air strike in Uruzgan province killed at least 21 civilians. Both of these events have exacerbated tensions inside the country, and Gen. McChrystal made a televised apology for the Uruzgan incident.
The fighting has wound down in Marjah, which may or may not validate the rules of engagement. Most of the local Taliban either melted away to the frontier or simply put down their weapons and are still there. The true test will come when NATO implements rules of disengagement. When coalition forces pull out, Marjah may well go back to being the Taliban stronghold it always has been, and those who cooperated with NATO and Afghan government authorities will be held to account.
No level of good behavior on the part of American forces will validate a conflict in the eyes of those who oppose it. Some hearts and minds will never be changed.