Gen. Petraeus is busy wasting time today explaining himself to one of the least impressive collections of military strategerists on Earth, the Senate Armed Services Committee. He has to do this in order to accept his new role as Commander in Afghanistan. One of the things under discussion is the Rules of Engagement (ROE) there and many are wondering what Petraeus will do about them. One thing that has been a bone of contention for a while is whether the ROE Gen. McChrystal put in place were overly restrictive and put our troops in too much danger. Petraeus has said he will "look very hard" at them, but let's keep one thing in mind. He has already done that. He was McChrystal's boss and could have had these rules changed any time in the last year. He hasn't, and for a good reason. They are the right rules and he agrees with them. By the way, congrats to my favorite Juicebox Mafioso Spencer Ackerman for his new gig at Danger Room.
Now what he will do is issue some new guidance about how they have been interpreted and implemented, but he is not going to make any wholesale changes and unleash the dogs of war. The reason for that is that we can't achieve our goal by simply stacking dead tangos and the civilians they hide amongst like cord wood. Trust me, if that was a productive strategy, I would be the first to shout for it from the highest mountain. But it isn't and if we want to turn the tide in Afghanistan, we need the people there to believe we are doing our level best to avoid killing them. They are the ones who can tell us who the bad guys are, but they have to trust us the the Afghan security forces and government first.
There have been a number of anecdotal accounts of our troops being hamstrung by the ROE. In virtually every case I have heard of, the problem was a lower level commander taking an overly-restrictive implementation of the ROE. It is quite likely that Gen. Petraeus will reinforce the stated point that these rules do not restrict our troops from calling in fire to protect themselves, and since he is pretty savvy that will likely be announced publicly. He will also reinforce the idea that we should do all we can to avoid civilian casualties. Those are not mutually exclusive goals and the bottom line is there needs to be a proper balance between them.
So expect some cosmetic changes to the ROE, but remember that Gen. Petraeus is deeply committed to population-centric COIN. That means taking care of the populace, giving them some skin in the game e.g. local projects and local security forces, and putting the responsibility to maintain this in the hands of the Afghans themselves, where it belongs.