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Coalition Deaths in Afghanistan Renew Debate Over Rules of Engagement

July 14, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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For two perspectives on the latest deadly month for Coalition forces in Afghanistan, Jim Lehrer talks to Maj. Benjamin Tupper, who was an embedded trainer with the Afghan National Army, and Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, who was the Air Force's No. 2 lawyer until his recent retirement.
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JIM LEHRER: Two perspectives now — Major Benjamin Tupper was an embedded trainer with the Afghan National Army. He wrote a book about his experiences, “Greetings From Afghanistan: Send More Ammo.” He’s still in the Army National Guard. The views he expresses are his own. And Major General Charles Dunlap was the Air Force’s number-two lawyer until his recent retirement. He’s now a visiting professor of law at Duke University.

First, Major Tupper, how do you see the reasons for the rising tide of U.S. casualties?

MAJ. BEJAMIN TUPPER, former Afghan Army trainer: Well, I think it’s pretty straightforward.

We’re going into areas that we haven’t been for years. We have force levels now that are on par to get into these — these — homelands, so to speak, safe areas that the Taliban has been operating out of for years uncontested.

So, it’s tragic, but it’s pretty logical to expect that we’re going to have more casualties as we go into their homeland and they fight desperately to defend their logistical bases, their caches, their support bases.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, General, that this was pretty inevitable?

MAJ. GEN. CHARLES DUNLAP (RET.), U.S. Air Force: Well, I think it’s inevitable when you put 30,000 more troops — when you put more troops on the ground, you’re going to have more casualties, especially given the interpretation anyway of the rules of engagement as being more restrictive.

If you decide to take out the logistical centers that Major Tupper referenced by putting ground troops and sending ground troops after it, then you’re going to have more casualties. And that’s why I believe that we ought to use more of our technological means, within the law, within the law, to achieve those objectives.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, change the rules of engagement?

MAJ. GEN. CHARLES DUNLAP: Well, it may be that the rules of engagement themselves are fine. But, as General Petraeus has alluded to, it may be the interpretation that’s going down the chain.

And, sometimes, at the bottom of — at the pointy end of the stick, the troops feel that they have to — they interpret the rules of engagement in they way that maybe wasn’t intended up the chain. So, that’s an issue that I think General Petraeus and the commanders have to address immediately, because there’s obviously the perception that the troops are fighting with one arm tied behind their back.

And the facts seem to be supporting that. The original rationale that General McChrystal put out was to protect the Afghan people. But what we have seen since the restrictive rules have gone into effect is Afghan civilian casualties have reached an all-time high, as have the losses of young Americans and young NATO troops.

And, so, we really have to take a look at this situation and see if there’s a better way of accomplishing the task.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Major, that there’s a connection between the rising — the rise in U.S. casualties and the — possibly some misunderstandings about the rules of engagement?

MAJ. BEJAMIN TUPPER: Well, I’m not going to speculate on those individual actions that are occurring at a hair — you know, split-second decision. I will tell you what I saw.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

MAJ. BEJAMIN TUPPER: And I had a unique perspective, embedded within the Afghan National Army. I got to work alongside Afghan soldiers. Very few Americans — pretty much myself and one other American would be out on missions.

And I saw how the Afghans approached these prickly moments when there’s uncertainty, when it’s a shoot/don’t shoot moment. And, for the most part, they laid back. And I think we could — today, we call it COIN doctrine. They were more passive. They were more conservative in the use of force. And they reaped a lot of benefits from that, because, unfortunately, more times than not, when we react at that split second, we make the wrong decision. We may shoot the wrong vehicle. We may shoot the wrong person.

So, I think we should never equate killing bad guys with winning in Afghanistan. I think, for me personally, I think the COIN philosophy and ROE is going to cause us some short-term frustration, but it’s going to get us a lot of long-term benefits, in civilians not injured, in villages seeing that we, the coalition forces, used restraint, and the enemy did not, the Taliban did not.

That is how you win in Afghanistan. And I — in your run-up to the story, when you had some of the guys out on the front line talking about how frustrating and difficult it was, I get that. And it’s a lot to ask a 20-year-old infantryman to be a social worker, to be a mediator, to be a teacher, but that’s what we have to do.

We say we’re the most professional army in the world. We can do this. It’s going to be a steep learning curve. It’s going to be very difficult for some of those guys who would rather pull a trigger, but we’re professional soldiers, and I think we can and will do it.

JIM LEHRER: General, do you disagree with that?

MAJ. GEN. CHARLES DUNLAP: I do.

I think there are a number of irreconcilables in Afghanistan that need to be dealt with in a military fashion. The fact of the matter is, is that the current process is not succeeding the way it was intended. It was intended to protect Afghan civilians.

We’re seeing their deaths reach all-time highs. And if in fact we’re winning hearts and mind, we have been told that less than 10 percent of the Afghan people support the Taliban, but we’re also being told that the Taliban is making inroads.

So, this connection, it seems that we have won the hearts and mind, but we still seem to be losing the war in the sense of, we are continuing to see rising casualties. So, we really do have to make some fundamental re-looks at the way we’re approaching this, because the American people need to know that every effort is being made to protect their sons and daughters that are going there.

And I believe that’s what the commanders want. And I’m not suggesting at all that we do something in violation of the law. We strictly adhere to the law. And I disagree with Major Tupper in the idea that we have troops making split-second decisions, where they’re typically making the wrong decision.

I think they’re typically making the right decision. The Army has a very and the Marine Corps has a very sophisticated process where they train the troops on ROE. But the point is, is that we ought to use our technological means. We ought to use airpower. We ought not to be sending troops on the ground against every target.

We ought to be looking at other opportunities. And the fact of the matter is, we keep telling the adversary that, if there’s one civilian there, then we’re not going to use airpower or artillery. We have telegraphed to the adversary exactly what strategy to use.

And that’s not what the law provides. The law expects that there’s going to be civilian casualties, because they don’t want to encourage enemy adversaries to surround themselves with civilians, which is exactly what’s happening in Afghanistan. It was a well-intentioned idea, but we need to have aggressive rules of engagement that comply with the law.

I completely agree with Major Tupper that, the more we can have Afghans leading this effort, Afghans in the field, I’m all in favor of that. And what he did was heroic and the kind of thing we need to do more of.

But what we’re talking about now is, where Americans and NATO troops are leading the effort, they need to be free to use all the capability that’s — that’s available to them.

JIM LEHRER: Major, what about the point that — that the general just made, and also Mr. Morrell made it in his statement today, that the problem is, there are not enough trained Afghan security forces out there to get the job done, and the Americans have to step up to it? And, of course, the general’s point is, if Americans are going to step up to it, they are going to have to step up more aggressively?

MAJ. BEJAMIN TUPPER: Right.

I — just to clarify, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a kinetic role and we shouldn’t be engaged in kinetic operations. What I think is — to your question about the Afghan security forces…

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MAJ. BEJAMIN TUPPER: … we’re growing them as fast as we can. It’s a ramshackle army. It’s a work in progress. Any professional army takes years and years to develop.

Again, I can speak to my experience there, and the Afghan soldiers I worked with in the Ghazni Province and Paktika Province, I was very impressed, A, at their motivation and their understanding of the big picture of what was trying to be done in Afghanistan — in other words, they weren’t just there to get a paycheck — their commitment to working with coalition forces.

And we came in there with a lot of arrogance and ignorance and well-intentioned, and they put up with us and helped us walk the Afghan landscape and understand it a little better. So, you know, that cup is half-empty; the cup is half-full.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MAJ. BEJAMIN TUPPER: There’s a lot of progress being made.

You know, we had that tragedy of an Afghan soldier, I believe, killing the three British guys yesterday, day before yesterday.

JIM LEHRER: Right. Should that be seen as an aberration, or is that a serious problem?

MAJ. BEJAMIN TUPPER: In my opinion, that’s an aberration. We have been at war there now nine years. And I think this is an accurate statement, that, you know, tragically, more American soldiers have killed American soldiers in that nine-year period.

JIM LEHRER: You mean from friendly-fire accidents — friendly-fire incidents?

MAJ. BEJAMIN TUPPER: And intentional.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MAJ. BEJAMIN TUPPER: Think of the Hasan case and some other incidents — have had more fatalities than from Afghan soldiers attacking their embedded trainers.

And, trust me, the Afghan soldiers, every day and every night, have the opportunity to do away with their trainers, if they saw fit. But they don’t, because they recognize that they’re part of a team, that the Americans and the coalition forces are there to do something good for Afghanistan, and they don’t have a problem with that.

And they’re willing to work with us hand in hand, teach us some of what we need to know about the Afghan landscape. We’re teaching them some of the military tactics they need to know to be more successful.

JIM LEHRER: And, General, I take it, from your perspective, you don’t disagree with what the major said about what the ultimate intent here is?

MAJ. GEN. CHARLES DUNLAP: Well, certainly, we do need — the Afghans need to defend themselves and have their own army.

I do think it’s an aberration. But the problem is, we have to think about this sophisticated enemy we’re dealing with. He only has to have a few of these incidents to inject what Clausewitz would call friction into the operation.

Every American over there and every NATO member is going to be looking a little bit harder at his Afghan ally, and that’s exactly what the enemy wants to take place. I believe that we have to focus — the president of the United States talks about protecting the American people from al-Qaida.

We hear Army commanders or troop commanders talking about protecting the Afghan people from the Taliban. I think we have to focus on that sophisticated element of our adversary that presents a threat to the United States.

And so that’s where I think we ought to bring our capabilities and let the Afghans continue the training process and let them deal with the threat of the Taliban, as opposed to the kinds of adversaries that can wreak havoc in this country.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

General, Major, thank you both very much.

MAJ. BEJAMIN TUPPER: Thank you.