By C.J. CHIVERS
New York Times
Riding shotgun in an armored vehicle as it passed through the heat and confusion of southern Afghanistan this month, an Army sergeant spoke into his headset, summarizing a sentiment often heard in the field this year.
"I wish we had generals who remembered what it was like when they were down in a platoon," he said to a reporter in the back. "Either they never have been in real fighting, or they forgot what it's like."
The sergeant was speaking of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and the circle of counterinsurgents who until last week had been running the Afghan war and who have, as a matter of both policy and practice, made it much more difficult for troops to use airstrikes and artillery in the fight against the Taliban.
Gen. David Patraeus, the Central Command leader who has now been given the task of command in Afghanistan, has to keep the faith of a constituency that no commander wants to lose: his own troops.
As levels of violence in Afghanistan climb, in another deadly summer, there is a palpable and building sense of unease among troops surrounding one of the most confounding questions about how to wage the war: when and how lethal force should be used.
The counterinsurgency doctrine championed by those now leading the campaign - often called population-centric tactics - rests on core assumptions, including that using lethal force against an insurgency intermingled with a civilian population is often counterproductive.
The rules have shifted risks from Afghan civilians to Western combatants. They have earned praise in many circles, hailed as a much needed corrective to looser practices that since 2001 killed or maimed many Afghan civilians and undermined support for the U.S.-led war.
The new rules have also come with costs, including a perception now frequently heard among troops that the effort to limit risks to civilians has swung too far and endangers the lives of Afghan and Western soldiers caught in firefights with insurgents who need not observe any rules at all.
Young officers and enlisted soldiers and Marines, typically speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, speak of "being handcuffed," of not being trusted by their bosses and of being asked to battle a canny and vicious insurgency "in a fair fight."
Some rules meant to enshrine counterinsurgency principles into daily practices, they say, do not merely transfer risks away from civilians. They transfer risks away from the Taliban.
Before the rules were tightened, one Army major who had commanded an infantry company said, "Firefights in Afghanistan had a half-life." By this he meant that skirmishes often were brief, lasting roughly a half-hour. The Taliban would ambush patrols and typically break contact and slip away as patrol leaders organized and escalated Western firepower in response.
Now, with fire support often restricted, or even idled, Taliban fighters seem noticeably less worried about a U.S. response, many soldiers and Marines say. Firefights often drag on, sometimes lasting hours, and costing lives.
The United States' material advantages are not robustly applied; troops are engaged in rifle-on-rifle fights on their enemy's turf.
One Marine infantry lieutenant, during fighting in Marjah this year, said he had all but stopped seeking air support while engaged in firefights.
He spent too much time on the radio trying to justify its need, he said, and the aircraft never arrived or they arrived too late or the pilots were reluctant to drop their ordnance.
"I'm better off just trying to fight my fight, and maneuver the squads, and not waste the time or focus trying to get air," he said.
Moments like those bring into sharp relief the grand puzzle faced by any outside general trying to wage war in Afghanistan. An American counterinsurgency campaign seeks support from at least two publics - the Afghan and the American. Efforts to satisfy one can undermine support in the other.
One Army colonel, in a conversation this month, said the discomfort and anger about the rules had reached a high pitch.
"The troops hate it," he said. "Right now we're losing the tactical-level fight in the chase for a strategic victory. How long can that be sustained?"