Troops chafe at restrictive rules of engagement, talks with Taliban

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — To the U.S. Army soldiers and Marines serving here, some things seem so obviously true that they are beyond debate. Among those perceived truths: Tthe restrictive rules of engagement that they have to fight under have made serving in combat far more dangerous for them, while allowing the Taliban to return to a position of strength.

“If they use rockets to hit the [forward operating base] we can't shoot back because they were within 500 meters of the village. If they shoot at us and drop their weapon in the process we can't shoot back,” said Spc. Charles Brooks, 26, a U.S. Army medic with 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, in Zabul province.

Word had come down the morning Brooks spoke to this reporter that watch towers surrounding the base were going to be dismantled because Afghan village elders, some sympathetic to the Taliban, complained they were invading their village privacy. “We have to take down our towers because it offends them and now the Taliban can set up mortars and we can't see them,” Brooks added, with disgust.

In June, Gen. David Petraeus, who took command here after the self-inflicted demise of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, told Congress that he was weighing a major change with rules for engaging enemy fighters in Afghanistan. That has not yet happened, troops say. Soldiers and Marines continue to be held back by what they believe to be strict rules imposed by the government of President Hamid Karzai designed with one objective: limit Afghan civilian casualties.

“I don't think the military leaders, president or anybody really cares about what we're going through,” said Spc. Matthew “Silver” Fuhrken, 25, from Watertown, N.Y. “I'm sick of people trying to cover up what's really going on over here. They won't let us do our job. I don't care if they try to kick me out for what I'm saying — war is war and this is no war. I don't know what this is.”

To the soldiers and Marines risking their lives in Afghanistan, restrictions on their ability to aggressively attack the Taliban have led to another enormous frustration stalking morale: the fear that the Karzai government, with the prodding of the administration of President Obama, will negotiate a peace with the Taliban that wastes all the sacrifices by the U.S. here. Those fears intensified when news reached the enlisted ranks that the Karzai government, with the backing of senior Obama officials, was entering a new round of negotiations with the Taliban.

“If we walk away, cut a deal with the Taliban, desert the people who needed us most, then this war was pointless,” said Pvt. Jeffrey Ward, with 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, who is stationed at Forward Operating Base Bullard in southern Afghanistan.

“Everyone dies for their own reasons but it's sad to think that our friends, the troops, have given their lives for something we're not going to see through.”

Other soldiers agreed. They said they feared few officials in the Pentagon understand the reality on the ground.

From the front lines, the U.S. backing of the Karzai government, widely seen as riddled with corruption by the Afghans living in local villages, has given the Taliban a position of power in villages while undercutting U.S. moral authority.

Corrupt government officials have made “it impossible for us to trust anyone,” said elder Sha Barar, from the village of Sha Joy. The people of that village and many others profess fear of the Taliban, and recount tales of brutality and wanton killings by the Taliban and their sympathizers. But they don't see the Karzai government as a positive force in their lives.

Karzai said that talks need to continue with the Taliban “at a fixed address and with a more open agenda to tell us how to bring peace to Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

But U.S. troops and Marines interviewed during the past month in Afghanistan question what negotiations would really mean, to both them and the Afghan people. And they almost universally believe that negotiating would be a mistake before achieving decisive gains they believe are attainable once oppressive rules of engagement are relaxed.

“What does it mean if we give in to the Taliban? They are the enemy,” Brooks said. “This place is going to be a safe haven for terrorists again. The government doesn't care about the sacrifices already made. As far as the mission goes, I want to see these kids go to school and have a future but not at the expense of my friends — not anymore.”

Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at scarter@washingtonexaminer.com.

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