KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN All 15,000 U.S. troops on their way to do battle in southern Afghanistan are being told to dial back their expectations on when they'll be allowed to use force.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail yesterday, the Kandahar-based Dutch general who oversees all troops in Afghanistan's six southern provinces said he plans to personally deliver a reminder to all members of the U.S. deployment assigned to join his command that they must be “very reluctant with use of force” in this country.
“This is about winning the hearts and minds of people … which will at the end of the day define the success of our forces,” Major-General Mart de Kruif said
All troops fighting under the umbrella international security force here are bound by rules of engagement that dictate when and under what circumstances it is legal to use particular weapons and means of force. Under operational security restrictions, those terms cannot be made public. However, Gen. de Kruif said there is flexibility in the way they are interpreted; on his watch, force will be “pushed down to the lowest level,” he said.
To ensure follow-through, the influx of troops arriving will be reminded “down to the company level” that conducting counterinsurgency here is not all about force, the general said. To ensure the U.S. units are on the same pages as the other international forces that make up his command, Gen. de Kruif has also sent some of his staff to military bases in the United States to spread the message at the troops' pre-deployment training.
The overarching goal of his campaign, he said, is to try to ensure that the number of civilian casualties – which often create anger and opposition to international forces – does not increase in and around Kandahar as troop levels peak.
As part of that goal, this week he ordered vehicle convoys to be more careful when travelling on city roads, where incidents involving civilian vehicles are frequent. (Vehicles attempting to pass long convoys are often mistaken for potential suicide bombers, prompting fire from troops who are authorized to use high levels of force if required in self defence.) He said international forces should yield to local traffic and only make use of roadways if there is room.
“We had more escalation-of-force incidents than we had suicide attacks last year. So we need to change the way we use force and we need to change our attitude,” he said, adding: “The roads are for the Afghan people. [International forces] will use them if space is available.”
At a meeting in Kandahar on Sunday, Afghan journalists told Gen. de Kruif that locals are concerned the influx of U.S. troops will result in an increase in violence. At Kandahar Air Field, non-U.S. military personnel, including some Canadian soldiers, have been quietly wondering the same thing. Although it is not something soldiers speak about openly, perceptions exist that U.S. troops are sanctioned to be more cavalier with their weapons.
But Gen. de Kruif said that will not be the case. Citing the fact that for months more than 2,000 U.S. troops have been on the ground operating under his command in conjunction with Canadian and British troops, he said: “I don't see anything significantly different with the way they operate and use force than how other coalition forces operate and use force. I don't see any real issue there.”
Still, that won't exempt new U.S. troops from attending a special training session on use of force and related legal issues when they arrive here, he said.