General David Petraeus is baaack, the architect of the counterinsurgency "surge" strategy that broke al Qaeda terrorists, Shia militiamen, and co-opted Sunnis insurgents in Iraq, has stepped down from U.S. Central Command. He has been confirmed as the new U.S commander in Afghanistan, stepping in for his disgraced subordinate, former Afghan war commander Gen. Stanley McCrystal. McCrystal resigned last week after he and members of his staff unwisely--though perhaps deliberately--criticized civilian leadership in an interview with a Rolling Stone reporter.
One of the first and perhaps most glaring issues Gen. Petraeus will face once he takes his new command will be whether or not he can function with the very same civilian counterparts Gen. McCrystal savaged. National Security Advisor Jim Jones, Afghan ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke have not worked well with the military and have created barriers to working with the Afghani and Pakistani governments. Even Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein warned that the Obama Administration may need a shake-up of the civilian leadership in what is now the deadliest month of America's longest running war.
Another key element Gen. Petraeus must address are rules of engagement (ROE) that critics contend expose NATO soldiers to enemy fire unnecessarily, even as they fail to reduce the number of civilians killed in the conflict. While the exact details of ROE are never made public to avoid exploitation by enemy forces, McCrystal's orders were restrictive enough that they have been directly blamed for the deaths of American soldiers. Critic have claimed that under the current rules, our troops are not allowed to open fire with their small arms unless they come under enemy fire first.
It is already well known that allied forces have been hampered with ROE that frustrates their efforts to call for fire support during combat. rumors have swirled that commanders in the rear have denied or delayed artillery and air support to units under fire out of concern that Taliban and al Qaeda forces were using Afghan civilians as human sheilds.
Gen. Petraeus will not publicly reveal his rules of engagement, nor is it likely he will announce when changes will go into effect.
What we do know is that civilians are certain to die in every conflict; that is an unavoidable fact of war. A general that allows his troops to fight, however, ultimately reduces civilian casualties by ending the war. that is an improvement with which we can all live.