New Commander, New Questions About Rules Of Engagement For U.S. Troops In Afghanistan Soldiers in Afghanistan complain that cautious rules of engagement sometimes put them at risk by preventing them from firing on the Taliban. Officers say the practice is saving the lives of innocent civilians and helping win the support of locals. Still, troops are looking to their new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, to see if the rules will change.
NPR logo

In Kandahar, Looking To Petraeus On Rules Of Fire

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In Kandahar, Looking To Petraeus On Rules Of Fire

In Kandahar, Looking To Petraeus On Rules Of Fire

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Troops fighting in Afghanistan officially have a new commander today. The Senate unanimously voted to confirm General David Petraeus as head of American and NATO forces. Petraeus plans to be in Afghanistan by the end of the week. Once there, he has a long list of challenges ahead. And one of them is making sure the rules that soldiers must follow during combat strike the right balance. Those rules are designed to protect the lives of Afghan civilians. But American soldiers complained the rules put their own lives at risk.

NPR's Tom Bowman is in Afghanistan with troops from the Army's 101st Airborne Division. He sent this report on what soldiers are saying about the rules of engagement.

TOM BOWMAN: Captain Jeffrey McKinnon peers over a sandbag wall at a combat outpost north of Kandahar. He points to a location 100 yards away set in a tangle of grapevines, trees and brush.

JEFFREY MCKINNON: We found an enemy fighting position there about three days ago. They shot at our tower - very brief. I think they were actually test-firing one of their weapons.

BOWMAN: But the Americans didn't return fire.

MCKINNON: We actually didn't see it, that's why we went and patrolled over there, so we could find where they were firing from.

BOWMAN: By the time they got there, the Taliban and their weapons were gone. But from another Taliban position, a crumbling mud compound, the Americans were able to shoot back.

MCKINNON: That contact was pretty sustained a good 10 or 15 minutes. And we fought them off of that.

BOWMAN: How do you know there weren't women and children on the other side?

MCKINNON: You can actually see all the way through that thing.

BOWMAN: Seeing all the way through - the rules of engagement require that soldiers see the enemy or innocent civilians before they decide whether to open fire. McKinnon knows that cautious approach angers some of his troops.

MCKINNON: The guys down here get emotional because friends get hurt and we see bad guys every day.

BOWMAN: Some soldiers complain the enemy is being allowed too much freedom of movement. The rules are letting the Taliban slip away, even after they open fire at Americans.

Here's Specialist Jeffrey Cole standing near his armored truck.

JEFFREY COLE: We can't engage until fired upon, and it's not really giving us a fair chance, I don't think.

BOWMAN: You hear that more from privates and corporals. The officers, like Captain McKinnon, see it differently. So does his boss, Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Davis. He stands across the outpost at the command center, basically a plywood shack.

JOHNNY DAVIS: We're not in business of: Hey, we think we hear it coming from this direction, so let's take all our weapons systems, point in that direction and pull the trigger.

BOWMAN: Davis continually reminds his troops that winning a counterinsurgency means winning over the population.

DAVIS: We didn't come to look and, you know, kill the Taliban. We came here to focus on the people.

BOWMAN: And that doesn't mean open fire immediately.

DAVIS: What you want to do is be patient. It doesn't have to be right now. If he is not a threat to you, is not giving you effective fire, separate him from the people.

BOWMAN: And Davis knows better than others about the threat. His truck was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade just two weeks ago. Shrapnel tore into his legs and wounded five other soldiers in the convoy. The Taliban then opened fire with machine guns from behind a line of trees. Army attack helicopters swarmed overhead, but did not fire on them. Why? Because they spotted children there, too.

DAVIS: Remember, this is during the harvest season, so people are out in their fields working.

BOWMAN: They've been watching the area for any signs of Taliban activity for weeks and found a bomb-making team. Davis feels like he was rewarded for his restraint - not hurting civilians helped them roll up the Taliban.

DAVIS: Just yesterday we captured a three-man team, with the jugs, the command wire. So, that's how you do it. And you have to be patient and take them out one cell at a time.

BOWMAN: One cell at a time. Davis has 11 more months to be patient.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Kandahar province, Afghanistan.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.