NATO's Contemptible 'Courageous Restraint' Medal

The military’s rules of engagement in Afghanistan have become so emasculated that commanders are now considering the creation of a medal awarded for not using lethal force during war.

NATO Commander General Stanley McChrystal is currently reviewing the “Courageous Restraint” medal, which was suggested by British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter following an incident where U.S. soldiers fired on a bus carrying Afghan civilians.

“The idea is being reviewed at Headquarters ISAF,” said Lt. Col. Edward Sholtis, the spokesman for Gen. McChrystal. “The idea is consistent with our approach. Our young men and women display remarkable courage every day, including situations where they refrain from using lethal force, even at risk to themselves, in order to prevent possible harm to civilians. … That restraint is an act of discipline and courage not much different than those seen in combat actions.”

However, restraint hasn’t translated into progress on the battlefield. A recent report from the Pentagon revealed that violence in Afghanistan is increasing – up 87% from last year – and that more districts support the Taliban than did six months ago (none of the 92 districts surveyed actively support the Karzai government while 42 are sympathetic to the Taliban). While our forces build infrastructure, provide medical care, and show restraint on the battlefield, the Taliban acts like barbarians – intimidating, raping, and murdering. Yet when our troops act in self-defense, Afghans gather in protest, chanting “Death to America.”

In April, a bus approached a convoy of engineers in Kandahar City at a high rate of speed, ignoring multiple attempts to get the driver to slow down. Due to poor visibility conditions, and the high threat of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (IED) in the district, the soldiers opened fire, killing four passengers and wounding 18.

“The most elementary students of the Laws of Land Warfare all know that a soldier always has the right to defend him or herself,” writes Rajiv Srinivasan, an Indian immigrant and U.S. Army officer stationed in Afghanistan. “Lights, lasers, or nothing, if those soldiers felt threatened, they had every right to engage.”

Attempts to contact ISAF regarding whether administrative actions were taken against the soldiers who fired upon the bus went unanswered. We do know, however, that they won’t be eligible for Gen. McChrystal’s “Courageous Restraint” medal. More importantly, they will come home. And perhaps Afghan bus drivers will now operate more safely around military convoys, which makes life better for Americans and Afghans alike.

But if the soldiers had instead opted to display “courageous restraint,” it is entirely possible that the next time a bus drove by it would be loaded with explosives rather than people. Are we willing to risk the lives of our sons and daughters so that Afghan bus drivers may drive imprudently? We must realize that at a certain point, winning hearts and minds becomes pandering to the enemy.

“Those soldiers didn’t know if that bus was going to stop,” wrote Srinivasan. “But quite frankly, no matter what anyone else says, I’m not here for the Afghan people. I’m here for the American people. I’m an American platoon leader here to protect Americans. It sounds callous, but the risk to just one American life on that morning would have given me enough of a reason to open fire.”

Just days after the incident, Maj. Gen. Carter met with Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Hall – the senior enlisted man in Afghanistan – in Kandahar to discuss the “Courageous Restraint” medal.

Sholtis said that “We absolutely support the right of our forces to defend themselves.”

If that were true, then why do commanders restrict the military from defending themselves whenever incidents could result in the loss of civilian lives? Air support is so restricted that the Taliban no longer run from fighter jets. Indirect fire support like artillery and mortars are “only authorized under very limited and proscribed conditions.” Taliban fighters can now simply lay down their weapons during a firefight and walk away unharmed – much to the dismay of the Marines they had previously been trying to kill.

In September 2009, four Marines, their Navy Corpsman, and nine Afghan soldiers died when commanders denied requests for air and artillery support. Although the unit repeatedly assured that the fighting was not near a residential area, commanders still withheld support from the endangered force. Those responsible would undoubtedly be among the first to receive the “Courageous Restraint” medal.

“Given the uneven playing field upon which the jihadis are waging war and the barbaric IED attacks our soldiers are subjected to, it is time for a public debate regarding the double standards that bind our hands in battle,” says Maj. Gen. Paul E. Vallely (U.S. Army, ret.), CEO of Stand Up America. “Any actions we take will not impose any restraint upon the enemy.”

Indeed, Congress does have a responsibility to oversee and discuss policy. Congressman Walter Jones (R – N.C.) called for hearings in March on the military’s rules of engagement, saying “they have proved too often to be fatal.” However, the House Armed Services Committee is unlikely to hold hearings unless either more members call for it, or if the chairman – Ike Skelton (D – Mo.) – or the ranking member – Buck McKeon (R – Calif.) calls for hearings.

As Gen. McChrystal wrote in a July 2009 directive: “The Taliban cannot militarily defeat us – but we can defeat ourselves.” When we reward troops for not defending themselves – and take away their air and artillery support – that appears to be exactly what is going on.

From the Editor:
Chris Carter is the Director of the Victory Institute – please visit his site.