There was an international uproar when, on Sept. 4, in Afghanistan's Kunduz province, an American fighter jet under NATO command bombed a group of Taliban fighters who had hijacked two fuel tanker trucks. The trucks exploded, the fighters were killed, and so were a still-undetermined number of Afghan civilians.
The civilian deaths sent shudders through the American military command, already fearful that civilian casualties would further alienate the Afghan public. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, was said to be angry and determined to tighten the U.S. force's already-strict rules of engagement even more to avoid future civilian deaths.
Then something odd happened. When McChrystal met with local leaders in Kunduz, a few days after the bombing, he got an earful — but not what he expected.
According to a detailed account in The Washington Post — a story that has received too little attention in the ongoing debate over U.S. policy in Afghanistan — the local Afghan leaders told McChrystal to stop being so fussy and to go ahead and kill the enemy, which they said would help bring stability to the region.
Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran was given extraordinary access to the bombing investigation. According to his account, McChrystal began the meeting with a show of sympathy for those who had been killed or wounded. The general didn't get very far before he was interrupted by the provincial council chairman, Ahmadullah Wardak.
The security situation has been getting worse in Kunduz, Wardak told McChrystal. American and NATO troops haven't been aggressive enough in pursuing and killing the Taliban. In Wardak's view, the bombing of the fuel tankers, rather than a mistake, was the right thing to do.
“If we do three more operations like was done the other night, stability will come to Kunduz,” Wardak said, according to the Post account. “If people do not want to live in peace and harmony, that's not our fault.”
Chandrasekaran reported that McChrystal “seemed caught off guard.” Wardak clarified a bit more: “We've been too nice to the thugs,” he said.
So instead of receiving an angry lecture on America's disregard for Afghan life, the general received an angry lecture on America's hesitance to go after the enemy.
Cut from that scene to a letter written to Sen. Susan Collins last July. It was from a New Portland, Maine, man named John Bernard, father of Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard, then serving with the Marines in Afghanistan.
John Bernard, himself a 26-year veteran of the Marines, was enraged by the military's new, restrictive rules of engagement in Afghanistan. The rules are “nothing less than disgraceful, immoral and fatal for our Marines, sailors and soldiers on the ground,” Bernard wrote. Under those rules, U.S. forces “without reinforcement, denial of fire support and refusal to allow them to hunt and kill the very enemy we are there to confront are nothing more than sitting ducks.”
The letter, disturbing at the time, became heartbreaking three weeks later, when Joshua Bernard was killed fighting the Taliban in Helmand province.
His death became national news when the Associated Press published a clearly inappropriate photo of Bernard as he lay wounded. But the bigger news should have been his father's concerns about the rules of engagement.
Now cut again, this time to Sept. 8, when four U.S. Marines were killed when the Taliban ambushed their patrol in Kunar province. The Marines were taken completely by surprise and pinned down under heavy Taliban fire. McClatchy reporter Jonathan Landay was with them and wrote a harrowing account of their desperate battle to survive.
The rules of engagement again played a role. “U.S. commanders, citing new rules to avoid civilian casualties, rejected repeated calls to unleash artillery rounds at attackers dug into the slopes and treelines,” Landay wrote, “despite being told repeatedly that they weren't near the village.”
President Obama is in the middle of a new reassessment of his original reassessment of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. The big question consuming the press is whether Obama will send more troops, and if so, how many. But what American troops are actually doing in Afghanistan is even more important.
Will the president listen to John Bernard, to the troops who are fighting under tight restrictions, and even to Ahmadullah Wardak? Will he let them fight the fight? It's simply wrong to place Americans at risk otherwise.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appears on www.ExaminerPolitics.com ExaminerPolitics.com.