Lance Cpl. Brett Whirle of Dunellon, Fla., front, and Lance Cpl. Ruben Herrera of Memphis, Tenn., with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, take cover during a gunbattle while on patrol in Marjah, Afghanistan. (DUSAN VRANIC / ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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A congressman whose district includes Camp Lejeune, N.C., wants fellow lawmakers to review the rules of engagement used by NATO forces in Afghanistan, saying "they have proved too often to be fatal" to U.S. troops.
Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican, said he has become increasingly concerned about whether the rules of engagement, or ROE, limit U.S. forces from protecting themselves on the battlefield. He is calling for the House Armed Services Committee to hold a hearing, saying active-duty Marines and the families of troops killed in combat contact him regularly about the issue.
"I have great trust and respect in the leadership in the military, both Army and Marine Corps. There's no question about that," said Jones, a member of the committee. "But sometimes it's good that Congress follows through on its responsibility and oversees and discusses policy."
Specifics of the ROE are classified. But they have come under sharp criticism since July, when Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, issued guidelines directing "leaders at all levels to scrutinize and limit the use of force like close-air support against residential compounds and other locations likely to produce civilian casualties." He also restricted the use of air-to-ground munitions and indirect fire, such as artillery rounds, against residences.
The concerns stretch beyond that, however. In February, Marines involved in the assault on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah told an embedded Associated Press reporter that they frequently hesitated and held fire in some dangerous combat situations.
"I understand the reason behind it, but it's so hard to fight a war like this," Lance Cpl. Travis Anderson told AP. "They're using our rules of engagement against us," he said, adding that his platoon repeatedly saw men drop their guns into ditches before walking away to blend in with civilians.
Jones questioned the rules March 10 on the House floor, saying that "if that's the way we're supposed to fight a war, that's a poor way to fight the war." He waved a copy of Marine Corps Times as he spoke, quoting from a Nov. 2 story in which http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/2009/11/marines_fire_support_110209w/">the families of several Marines killed in Afghanistan blasted the tactics used there. He followed up March 25, sending Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, a letter asking for the hearing.
"It defies our fundamental belief in the right of self defense to know that these ROE have proved too often fatal and have placed our service members in legal jeopardy, as well," Jones said in the letter. "Also, it is extraordinarily difficult to explain to the family of a fallen service member that our government's interest in winning the hearts and minds of a foreign population prevented their son from defending himself or even the air support on which he depends."
There is no assurance the committee will take up Jones' concerns, however. The Defense Department doesn't publicly discuss ROE due to the sensitivity of the topic, so the committee doesn't hold open hearings on the subject, said Jennifer Kohl, a committee spokeswoman.
Speaking on background, another committee staff member said it is unlikely the committee would call for a classified briefing on the subject unless more members call for it, or either Skelton and Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., the ranking Republican member, see a need for it.
"Frankly, we don't have that many slots when members are in town, and there are other ways we can handle that," the staff member said, speaking anonymously to candidly assess the options. "We could set up Representative Jones with someone who can answer his questions."
That's not good enough, Jones said. If a hearing can't be held openly due to the ROE being classified, a closed briefing before the full committee should be held, he said.
"I feel like it's my responsibility to knock on as many doors as I can to get a hearing," he said. "We're-in a 16th-century country. If we're going to use our military, you have to give them the tools to defend themselves."
Retired 1st Sgt. John Bernard, an outspoken critic of the ROE whose son was killed in August, said Jones contacted him in March, and has impressed him with his earnestness. It is unlikely that McChrystal or President Obama will overturn their policies in Afghanistan, but there is value in holding a hearing because it may get the attention of other members of Congress, Bernard said.
"I was reached out to by a representative with a heart for warriors … whereas my own senators haven't contacted me in months," said Bernard, of New Portland, Maine. "The reality is that throughout the country, that's the case. When is the last time you heard a representative showing concern over the deaths of our guys and questioning whether the strategy is corrupt? Nobody's questioning it at all."
* http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/2010/03/marine_ambush_030310w/">Report: Army denied aid to team under fire
* http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/2009/11/marines_fire_support_110209w/">Families outraged over engagement restrictions
* http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/2009/10/ap_marine_bernard_changes_101309/">Fallen Marine's dad wants Afghan changes
* http://www.c-spanarchives.org/congress/?q=node/77531&appid=597819478">C-SPAN: Congressman cites Marine Corps Times article on House floor