General Faces Unease From 'Handcuffed' Troops

Riding shotgun in an armored vehicle as it passed through the heat and confusion of southern Afghanistan this month, an Army sergeant spoke into his headset, summarizing a sentiment often heard in the field this year.

“I wish we had generals who remembered what it was like when they were down in a platoon,” he said to a reporter in the back. “Either they never have been in real fighting, or they forgot what it’s like.”

The sergeant was speaking of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and the circle of counterinsurgents who since last year have been running the Afghan war, and who have, as a matter of both policy and practice, made it much more difficult for troops to use airstrikes and artillery in the fight against the Taliban.

No matter the outcome of his meeting on Wednesday in Washington over caustic comments he and his staff made about President Obama and his national security team, the general, or his successor, faces problems from a constituency as important as his bosses and that no commander wants to lose: his own troops.

As levels of violence in Afghanistan climb, there is a palpable and building sense of unease among troops surrounding one of the most confounding questions about how to wage the war: when and how lethal force should be used.

Since last year, the counterinsurgency doctrine championed by those now leading the campaign has assumed an almost unchallenged supremacy in the ranks of the American military’s career officers. The doctrine, which has been supported by both the Bush and Obama administrations, rests on core assumptions, including that using lethal force against an insurgency intermingled with a civilian population is often counterproductive.

Rules tightened
Since General McChrystal assumed command, he has been a central face and salesman of this idea, and he has applied it to warfare in a tangible way: by further tightening rules guiding the use of Western firepower — airstrikes and guided rocket attacks, artillery barrages and even mortar fire — to support troops on the ground.

“Winning hearts and minds in COIN is a coldblooded thing,” General McChrystal was quoted as telling an upset American soldier in the Rolling Stone profile that has landed him in trouble. “The Russians killed 1 million Afghans, and that didn’t work.” COIN is the often used abbreviation for counterinsurgency.

The rules have shifted risks from Afghan civilians to Western combatants. They have earned praise in many circles, hailed as a much needed corrective to looser practices that since 2001 killed or maimed many Afghan civilians and undermined support for the American-led war.

But the new rules have also come with costs, including a perception now frequently heard among troops that the effort to limit risks to civilians has swung too far, and endangers the lives of Afghan and Western soldiers caught in firefights with insurgents who need not observe any rules at all.

Young officers and enlisted soldiers and Marines, typically speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, speak of “being handcuffed,” of not being trusted by their bosses and of being asked to battle a canny and vicious insurgency “in a fair fight.”

Some rules meant to enshrine counterinsurgency principles into daily practices, they say, do not merely transfer risks away from civilians. They transfer risks away from the Taliban.

Firefights drag on
Before the rules were tightened, one Army major who had commanded an infantry company said, “firefights in Afghanistan had a half-life.” By this he meant that skirmishes often were brief, lasting roughly a half-hour. The Taliban would ambush patrols and typically break contact and slip away as patrol leaders organized and escalated Western firepower in response.

Now, with fire support often restricted, or even idled, Taliban fighters seem noticeably less worried about an American response, many soldiers and Marines say. Firefights often drag on, sometimes lasting hours, and costing lives. The United States’ material advantages are not robustly applied; troops are engaged in rifle-on-rifle fights on their enemy’s turf.

One Marine infantry lieutenant, during fighting in Marja this year, said he had all but stopped seeking air support while engaged in firefights. He spent too much time on the radio trying to justify its need, he said, and the aircraft never arrived or they arrived too late or the pilots were reluctant to drop their ordnance.

“I’m better off just trying to fight my fight, and maneuver the squads, and not waste the time or focus trying to get air,” he said.

Several infantrymen have also said that the rules are so restrictive that pilots are often not allowed to attack fixed targets — say, a building or tree line from which troops are taking fire — unless they can personally see the insurgents doing the firing.

This has lead to situations many soldiers describe as absurd, including decisions by patrol leaders to have fellow soldiers move briefly out into the open to draw fire once aircraft arrive, so the pilots might be cleared to participate in the fight.

The grand puzzle
Moments like those bring into sharp relief the grand puzzle faced by any outside general trying to wage war in Afghanistan. An American counterinsurgency campaign seeks support from at least two publics — the Afghan and the American. Efforts to satisfy one can undermine support in the other.

The restrictions on using fire support are part of a larger bundle of instructions, known as rules of engagement, that guide decisions on how troops can interact with Afghans, and how they can fight. The rules have shifted frequently over the years, becoming tighter and tighter.

Each change, often at the urging of the government of President Hamid Karzai, has shown the delicacy of the balance.

NATO needs the Afghan government’s support. But restrictions that are popular in Kabul have often alienated soldiers and Marines whose lives are at stake, including rules that limit when Western troops can enter Afghan homes. Such rules, soldiers and Marines say, concede advantages to insurgents, making it easier for them to hide, to fight, to meet and to store their weapons or assemble their makeshift bombs.

It is an axiom of military service that troops gripe; venting is part of barracks and battlefield life. Troops complain about food, equipment, lack of sleep, delays in their transportation and the weather where they work.

Complaints about how they are allowed to fight are another matter and can be read as a sign of deeper disaffection and strains within the military over policy choices. One Army colonel, in a conversation this month, said the discomfort and anger about the rules had reached a high pitch.

“The troops hate it,” he said. “Right now we’re losing the tactical-level fight in the chase for a strategic victory. How long can that be sustained?”

Whatever the fate of General McChrystal, the Pentagon’s Afghan conundrum remains. No one wants to advocate loosening rules that might see more civilians killed. But no one wants to explain whether the restrictions are increasing the number of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base, and seeding disillusionment among those sent to fight.


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Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station.
  • by Curious Location: Greenville on Jun 23, 2010 at 02:19 PM
    The General shouldn't have said what he said in public or at least to a source that would make it public, but it's still very valid and true. Our President and advisors need to let the Military do what they were trained to do. WIN!!! They have the intel,training, and monetary backing to do what needs to be done. Once an excess amount of politics join the fight the soldiers hands are "handcuffed"
  • by WOW Location: Pitt County on Jun 23, 2010 at 01:06 PM
    A pitfully poor leader (Obama) so frustrated a great leader (McChrystal) that it caused him to lose his job, and our country a great chance of ending this Afganistan conflict. Because of Obama's indecision and his decision to turn tail and run in 2011, we have emboldened our enemies, and demoralized our troops and friends. Another in a long line of horrible Obama mistakes.
  • by Anonymous on Jun 23, 2010 at 10:09 AM
    To: Anonymous on Jun 23, 2010 at 09:42 AM. You condem Gen. McCrystal for speaking his mind but praise "The Voice" for speaking theirs. I have not seen a "you owe me" attitude from any of those returning from fighting in Iraq or Afganistan. You say there should be more like "the voice", he/she has even said that they hate America, hate the American flag, hate the troops etc. and you defend them? There should be more people on here standing up against them. I actually think that the comments posted by "the voice" should not even be posted by WITN but they have the rights of freedom of speech because of the men and women in uniform that they hates so much.
  • by Back Location: Gvlle on Jun 23, 2010 at 07:20 AM
    Oops, wrong story; but will comment on this one as well. What does this story tell us. It tells us that the soldiers in the field have little to NO respect for they're pretend CIC. Maybe its because he is not promilitary. Maybe its because he knows NOTHING about the military but aloty about community organizing. Maybe they realize he's making our country weaker. Maybe they think he's a coward. Maybe they think he's intentionally trying to weaken our country. I personally think he's ALL of the above. Its sad and scary when military personnel don't respect or trust the one that is supposedly their commander in chief (more like commander in arrogance). That has a nice ring to it; Commander Arrogance, is here to save you all and protect you from yourselves. Oh, he is leading them, just in the wrong direction. What a coward.
  • by Anonymous on Jun 23, 2010 at 06:42 AM
    Hopefully we will not have another generation of "heroes" feeling sorry for themselves as the Vietnam veterans have. There sholuld be more people like "The Voice" who are not afraid to speak their minds. McChrystal (whom I hope gets fired today) represents the arrogance of today's military. Young braggarts with a "you owe me" attitiude.
  • by Back Location: Gvlle on Jun 23, 2010 at 05:33 AM
    'Come one come all. Get your college degree in just a couple of short months.' The college degree that took most of us years to receive will now be made much easier to get. We'll make it easy for you. Doesn't matter if you can't learn the material or actually do the job. We'll make sure you have a degree. obama and his liberal idiots seem to think you are entitled to it no matter what. our standards are going lower and lower mainly because of political correctness.
  • by Obama Snake Oil Co Location: Washington on Jun 23, 2010 at 05:22 AM
    Just as I thought. You cannot tie the generals hands without more soldiers dying in the field. His goal is to minimize loss of troops and Obama's is to protect the Taliban....hopefully, we will get a real leader in 2012 as we do not have one right now. The CIC is a community organizer...not a leader. We all have seen that since the general wanted 40 thousand troops...months later, he got 30 thousand. Then came the restrictions on what firepower he could use....I can see how he has his hands tied, no way to win, just vietnam all over again.
  • by Dixiegirl929 on Jun 23, 2010 at 05:10 AM
    They should NOT apologize for telling the truth!
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