Report: Petraeus to relax rules of engagement in Afghanistan?

Fox is overselling this a bit, but just a bit. According to CNN, Petraeus won’t make any decisions until after he conducts a “sweeping review” of operations, but I think it’s a fait accompli that he will, ultimately, relax the ROE. They’re one of the biggest, most chronic complaints of troops in the field; dialing them down will, if nothing else, signal a new start under a new commander and hopefully boost morale that’s suffering from the loss of McChrystal and the sluggishness of progress on the ground. Which probably explains why the Pentagon is so eager to tout the impending change.

A military source close to Gen. David Petraeus told Fox News that one of the first things the general will do when he takes over in Afghanistan is to modify the rules of engagement to make it easier for U.S. troops to engage in combat with the enemy, though a Petraeus spokesman pushed back on the claim.

Troops on the ground and some military commanders have said the strict rules — aimed at preventing civilian casualties — have effectively forced the troops to fight with one hand tied behind their backs.

The military source who has talked with Petraeus said the general will make those changes. Other sources were not so sure, but said they wouldn’t be surprised to see that happen once Petraeus takes command.

Says CNN, drily, “Petraeus will seek to find out if the troops simply need a better understanding of the rules or if the rules need to be changed, the sources noted.” I’ve got a crazy hunch that a “better understanding” in this case will mean not applying the rules so strictly. But wait — why would a counterinsurgency guru whose strategy is based on winning hearts and minds want a freer use of force? Jason Thomas at Small Wars Journal explains in a list of five suggestions for Petraeus, the very first of which calls for tweaking the ROE:

1. Change Coalition Forces rules of engagement – it’s not about troop numbers it’s what the troops do – Yes, counterinsurgency is about winning the population not blazing your way through the enemy. But Pashtun’s and Hazaran’s are tough, resilient and stoic people and the coalition looses all respect when it does not engage the enemy when under continued attack. We experienced this regularly in Ghazni. It was not until two weeks of constant rocket attacks that the Polish, who own the battlespace in Ghanzi, finally responded – even then it was with a helicopter that spent all of 10minutes in the air. In Australia we have a better response to sharks spotted at a beach. Afghans do not think this approach is protecting the population.

The ROE will be topic number two at his confirmation hearing; topic number one is, of course, the withdrawal deadline, as McCain has already promised. If I were you I’d take five minutes and read this NYT piece now, because you might hear it quoted by Republican senators on Monday.

Pakistan is exploiting the troubled United States military effort in Afghanistan to drive home a political settlement with Afghanistan that would give Pakistan important influence there but is likely to undermine United States interests, Pakistani and American officials said…

Coupled with their strategic interests, the Pakistanis say they have chosen this juncture to open talks with Mr. Karzai because, even before the controversy over General McChrystal, they sensed uncertainty — “a lack of fire in the belly,” said one Pakistani — within the Obama administration over the Afghan fight.

“The American timetable for getting out makes it easier for Pakistan to play a more visible role,” said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the spokesman for the Pakistani Army. He was referring to the July 2011 date set by Mr. Obama for the start of the withdrawal of some American combat troops.

The GOP will spend its time at the hearing trying to badger Petraeus into a promise that he’ll do what he can to get The One to lift the withdrawal date, but that’s mostly a waste of time. Democrats will have had enough of the war by next July, and unless Petraeus works some kind of Iraq-times-two miracle, I expect most voters will have too. (See the beginning of this sharp but bleak Tom Ricks analysis on what The One likely has in mind.) So here’s my plea: Instead of pounding away at the deadline non-stop, can we spare a few questions for Petraeus about why we’re not doing more to involve the only country in the region that’s both allied with the U.S. and willing/able to check Pakistani influence by establishing its own long-term influence over Afghanistan? Hitchens raised that point last year and I haven’t heard a good counterargument yet. Please?