Did President Obama’s Rules of Engagement Result in a Significant Increase in American Casualties ?

US soldiers stand guard near the site of a suicide attack in Maidan Shar, the capital city of Wardak province south of Kabul on September 8, 2013.  (AFP Photo/Shah Marai)

US soldiers stand guard near the site of a suicide attack in Maidan Shar, the capital city of Wardak province south of Kabul on September 8, 2013.  (AFP Photo/Shah Marai)

US military directives enacted in Afghanistan after President Obama took office in 2009 could be to blame for an increase in casualties according to a critical new report, and may have laid the seeds for the current impasse in negotiations.

Months after his presidential inauguration in 2009 Obama  announced that the US would commit over 30,000 additional troops  to the Afghan conflict. The order came at the request of military  leaders on the ground in the Middle East, who advised the  president that it would be beneficial to send troops in sooner  and pull them out sooner than initially planned.

Obama tapped General Stanley McChrystal and then Army General  David Petraeus to carry out the directive. Yet a new report from  the Washington Times, a conservative paper often critical of the  administration’s policies, notes that the shift from the policies  of the Bush administration to Obama’s may have cost more American  lives.

The rules of engagement (ROE) put into place in 2009 and the  early part of 2010 limited air and artillery strikes in the name  of preventing civilian casualties, and at times called upon  soldiers to restrain from firing their weapons. The report in the  Washington Times indicates that, upon approaching Taliban  fighters, a ground unit would often have to convince a remote  commander that the threat was armed before engaging.

In Afghanistan, the [rules of engagement] that were put in  place in 2009 and 2010 have created a hesitation and confusion  for our war fighters,” Wayne Simmons, a retired US  intelligence officer who worked at NATO headquarters in Kabul  under McChrystal and Petraeus, told the Times.

It is no accident nor a coincidence that from January 2009  to August of 2010, coinciding with the Obama/McChrystal radical  change of the ROE, casualties more than doubled,” Simmons  went on. “The carnage will certainly continue as the already  fragile and ineffective [rules] have been further weakened by the  Obama administration as if they were playground rules.”

US troop strength more than doubled from 40,000 to 85,000  military personnel between 2008 and 2010, the first full year of  the surge. Despite that influx 499 Americans were killed in 2010,  three times the 2008 total and roughly five times the 2007 death  toll.

The American military presence peaked in 2011 at 100,000 troops,  with 419 deaths that year. Numbers began to subside the following  year, when the death toll fell to 319.

Perhaps the most striking example of a bureaucracy putting lives  at risk came in September 2009 at the battle of Ganjgal. Two  soldiers were award the Medal of Honor for their actions in the  in 10-hour fight in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, yet one of them   – former Army Captain William Swenson – has said that the  military’s reluctance to provide an air strike nearly killed him.

It’s not JAG (military attorney) responsibility to interject  to say, ‘Hey, we are concerned that you’re going to hit a  building,’” he told the Washington Times last month. “I  can tell you that I am concerned with saving as many lives as I  can, not necessarily one. Unfortunately, this is combat. I can’t  be perfect, but I can do what I feel what’s right at the  time.”

Former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in 2012, when  the surge ended, that the Obama administration’s initiative had  been a success, deeming it “a very important milestone”   in the war.

The “surge did accomplish its objectives of reversing the  Taliban momentum on the battlefield and dramatically increase the  size and capability of the Afghan national security forces,”   Panetta told USA Today.

An internal report card from the International Security  assistance Force obtained by Wired magazine in 2012 indicates the  contrary. The ISAF itself determined that many of the strategic  gains from the surge turned out to be negligible and that other  aspects of the conflict actually worsened. For instance,  insurgents launched 475 homemade bomb attacks in July 2009, and  approximately 625 in July 2012.

Yet Swenson, the Medal of Honor recipient, said the issue was  about much more than numbers for those who are fighting to save  their own lives: “I am not a politician. I am just the guy on  the ground asking for that ammunition to be dropped because it’s  going to save lives.”


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