The response to the administration’s much delayed announcement regarding increased troop levels in Afghanistan has been predictable, with opinion divided predominantly along ideological lines and less concern devoted to matters of military necessity.
Generally, the left hates the idea of committing as many as 30,000 additional troops to the Afghan theater by next summer with many on the political right, though basically supportive of the mission, in large part demanding the full complement of 40,000 troops that Gen. McChrystal had originally requested [that number did not represent the upward limit of the General's most ambitious plan which took form in a much larger surge, comprised of possibly 85,000 troops].
But warfare is more than a game of numbers, depending on many less quantifiable and sometimes more important factors.
Among those which are deservedly receiving much greater prominence now is the matter of the critical guidance issued to U.S. forces that serves to define what constitutes the appropriate use of force when engaging the enemy – the Rules of Engagement [ROE].
The issue comes under scrutiny now that the decision has been made to substantially increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, but with the daunting caveat that they will only be allotted about a year to prove their effectiveness before the withdrawal process is set in motion, in July of 2011, not surprisingly in consideration of the 2012 presidential election.
The exact content of U.S. Rules of Engagement are necessarily classified, but can be stitched together and approximated with a reasonable degree of accuracy from various sources, media and otherwise. The most trustworthy of these come from statements – seldom for attribution – made by active U.S. combat forces and returning vets.
The military itself will comment, with a certain sense of vagueness, about the general outlines of the ROE, but will not address specific elements of the directive.
To those who believe that the West is embroiled in an epic conflict between civilization and Islamic jihad, the ROE loom large. If the rules are overly restrictive, U.S. combat efficiency will be negatively affected and American casualties will quickly rise. On the other hand if the ROE are too wide open then they might well serve to quash popular support for the mission among the Afghani people, a matter of prime concern in counterinsurgency warfare.
There are two official military documents which provide relevant guidance on the use of lethal force.
2. Unclassified July 2, 2009 guidance regarding the Tactical Directive [ROE]
At the beginning of December, PipeLineNews.org opened a line of communication with a senior ISAF spokesman in Afghanistan in order to more fully understand the ROE. What follows in this section is a verbatim transcript, our questions appear in italics. The response begins with a general statement of policy; we made the decision not to attribute the comments to a particular individual, though that was not part of the ground rules going into this process.
"In general, our troops retain the right to use lethal force in self-defense. COMISAF’s [Editor's note: Commander, NATO International Security Assistance Force] tactical directive is mostly about putting our forces in the right frame of mind to exercise that right. So, for example, in the past if a group of insurgents fired on soldiers and then retreated into a compound or mosque, the "troops in contact" situation might not end until we waited them out or, if we’d taken reasonable but not foolproof steps to ensure civilians weren’t present, dropped a bomb or artillery round on the building.
The tactical directive requires troops, to the best of their ability, to ask a few fundamental questions in that situation. Even if someone might be shooting in my general direction, am I still in danger? Will I make more enemies than I’ll kill by destroying property or, if I’ve missed something, innocent civilians?
What are my other options to resolve this without escalating the violence? As unfortunate as they were, the incidents that have become emblems of perceived problems with the tactical directive were not situations in which the decisions discussed in the tactical directive ever came into play."
What is the current directive regarding ROE in Afghanistan?
"All forces operating under the authority of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan are subject to Rules of Engagement (ROE) issued by Allied Joint Force Command Headquarters Brunssum. The ROE are consistent with NATO publication MC 362/1 NATO Rules of Engagement. Non-ISAF US forces operate under similar ROE promulgated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. US ROE are based on CJCSI 3121.01A. All US units, ISAF and non-ISAF, retain the inherent right of self defense. The ROE are classified and their content cannot be released to or discussed with members of the public."
Would you please describe the process under which this policy was determined, by whom the final policy was set and how long it has been in effect?
"As stated in response to the first question, the ISAF ROE has been issued by Joint Force Command Headquarters Brunssum consistent with NATO publication MC 362/1. The content of the ROE is influenced by a variety of factors. ROE must be lawful, and international law defines the lawful limits for the use of force during military operations. The ROE have been in effect since NATO assumed the lead for ISAF in August 2003 and the current ROE were issued in May 2006, but are under constant review.
U.S. ROE is also under constant review by commanders at all levels of command. The Secretary of Defense, with input from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the chain of command, determines the ROE applicable to all U.S. units. Gen. McChrystal has recently issued a tactical directive designed to reduce civilian casualties while maintaining the inherent right of self defense for all units. While the tactical directive, like all orders is always subject to review, there are currently no plans to alter it."
To what degree, if any, was the civilian government in Afghanistan a party to ROE being set?
"ISAF operates in Afghanistan at the request of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and in accordance with resolutions of the United Nations Security Council. The ROE is an ISAF military document applicable only to ISAF forces, but it is consistent with ISAF’s mandate and the Afghan Government’s request that ISAF support it in meeting its responsibilities to provide security, stability and development. U.S. ROE are contained in a classified military document. Although Commanders consider the concerns of the Afghan Government, the Afghan Government plays no direct role in development of the ROE."
Are there plans to modify the current ROE to possibly be more consistent with the Afghan surge?
"ROE are constantly reviewed and, if appropriate, amended, to ensure that they provide ISAF and U.S. forces with the ability to carry out its mandate and support the Afghan Government in meeting its responsibilities to provide security, stability and development."
Under what circumstances are battlefield captures/detainees ‘Mirandized’?
"’Mirandize’ is a U.S. term about notification of a person’s rights under law upon arrest by a U.S. law enforcement officer. It is not a term that is applicable to the detention of a person in Afghanistan by ISAF forces. Law enforcement, such as arrest for a criminal offence, is the function of the Government of Afghanistan. However, persons detained by ISAF forces are advised as soon as circumstances permit of the grounds upon which they are detained and may make representations to the detaining authority about their detention. U.S. Service-members do not Mirandize personnel captured or detained. Detention by U.S. service-members is conducted under the Law of Armed Conflict and not under criminal law and thus Miranda is not applicable. Detainees questioned by U.S. law enforcement personnel for possible prosecution in U.S. Court’s may Mirandize the detainees where appropriate."
Under current policy, at what point does custodial interrogation begin for battlefield captures/detainees?
"The questioning of individuals detained by ISAF forces is undertaken in accordance with ISAF and national rules and policy and complies with obligations under international law. As stated above detention by U.S. service-members is conducted under the Law of Armed Conflict and not under criminal law and thus Miranda is not applicable. U.S. law enforcement personnel would determine if Miranda warnings are required prior to any interview they conduct."
It’s difficult to read through the above guidance and not get the sense that an extraordinary degree of judgment and hence restraint is being required of the U.S. military in the Afghan theater, to a degree seldom if ever seen in warfare.
A few enterprising U.S. media sources [in this case, an article published November 16, 2009 in the Washington Times] have expended much effort to piece together specific components of the ROE [source, U.S. troops battle both Taliban and their own rules]
1. No night or surprise searches.
2. Villagers have to be warned prior to searches.
3. ANA or ANP must accompany U.S. units on searches.
4. U.S. soldiers may not fire at the enemy unless the enemy is preparing to fire first.
5. U.S. forces cannot engage the enemy if civilians are present.
6. Only women can search women.
7. Troops can fire at an insurgent if they catch him placing an IED but not if insurgents are walking away from an area where explosives have been laid."
In a recent interview carried on NPR [seldom characterized as a pro-war media source] Rules Of Engagement Are A Dilemma For U.S. Troops one of the interviewees, Tom Bowman, relates his first-hand experience during a trip to Afghanistan, where he observed a detachment of Marines which was forced by the ROE to break off engaging a group of insurgents who were caught dead to rights placing a roadside IED.
"…we were inside this center, a command center, watching a video screen. They were watching live while these guys were digging a hole for a roadside bomb. And there were other indicators, too, besides digging the hole. There was a guy swimming across a canal with this wire, and the wires are used to detonate the bomb… They had all the indicators that these guys were insurgents planting a bomb. So they thought about using a machine gun to shoot these guys. There was another combat outpost not too far away. The problem was there was a compound of houses between where the Marines were with their machine gun and the guys planting the bomb. So then they decided to bring in the helicopters and use the machines guns and the helicopters to shoot these guys. As the helicopters came in, these guys look up in the air and start walking away. One of the guys was carrying a yellow jug – and that’s become the icon of the roadside bomb. They mix fertilizer and diesel fuel in this, and that becomes a part of the bomb. And then we saw one of these guys throw this jug into a haystack."
The anecdote ends with the gunship showing up and the insurgents responding by simply walking away unscathed, because the Marines no longer had the authority to engage the now "harmless" enemy.
We have noted similar occurrences in our previous coverage, for example this September 29th piece “Obama’s Afghan Rules Of Engagement Prove He Has No Interest In Winning”:
"…When it gets to the point that even Afghan tribal leaders start demanding that U.S. and NATO ground forces take off the silk gloves and start killing more Taliban fighters, something must indeed be wrong with the way our rules of engagement hamper battlefield operations. The tribal leader referred to above was quoted in a Washington Post article as countenancing more of the type of airstrikes which took place in Khunduz province on September 4 which along with killing significant numbers of the enemy also unfortunately resulted in civilian casualties. Rather than decrying the incident, Ahmadullah Wardak, the provincial council chairman confronted U.S. theater commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, bitterly protesting the reticence of U.S. forces to engage the enemy under Obama’s new rules of engagement, ‘If we do three more operations like was done the other night, stability will come to Kunduz…If people do not want to live in peace and harmony, that’s not our fault…We’ve been too nice to the thugs.’" [source, Washington Post, Sole Informant Guided Decision On Afghan Strike]
Such incidents are unfortunately not isolated.
In a statement made during a national security briefing, sponsored by Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, by Lt. Col. Allen West [Retired, having served 2 1/2 years in Afghanistan at Kandahar Air Base as Sr. Advisor to the Afghan Army] he said, "The Rules of Engagement have been so terribly drawn up now that we are allowing the enemy to pin down our forces…before we will engage with all available weapon systems. The Taliban knows what we will and will not do. I’ll give you a great example. You go outside the gate of Kandahar Air Base and you will have people that are sitting right outside the gate, that are watching convoys, that are counting, but you can’t engage them because they don’t have weapons and therefore they’re not conveying any hostile intent…" [Col West's statement begins about 7:50 into the video]
Other examples abound. One involves American units coming under attack, taking small arms fire from enemy forces which are operating near a village. In previous wars one of the main options would be to call in close air support and resolve the matter with finality, however in this conflict special legal clearance [which sometimes fail to materialize, despite the justifiability of the proposed action] must often be obtained before acting.
As noted early in this piece, one of the key notions in U.S. counterinsurgency theory is that though the enemy can be militarily defeated, the conflict can nonetheless still be lost through inappropriate application of force which results in enough collateral [civilian] casualties to turn the populace against the effort, rendering liberators into occupiers in their minds.
This concern was made clear by our military source in a follow up note:
"…We can’t win this battle by bombing or shooting everything. Our leaders must make hard choices on employment of their troops and weapons in order to accomplish their mission. Protecting the Afghan people is one of our top priorities – we cannot win this battle without them. Preventing civilian casualties is a fabric which runs through all our operations…"
It seems clear that in Afghanistan some primary elements of the ROE must be viewed as being largely discordant with traditional war-fighting doctrine, making guidance subservient to political considerations which may or may not be wise, yielding a military strategy of yet undetermined effectiveness.
One effect the current ROE has is to make all concerned overly cautious, cognizant of potential legal complications. When everyone from the commander on the ground to the command center on up to the Sec. of Defense and CIC becomes risk averse to an extreme degree, the real possibility of insufficient application of force becomes compounded exponentially, the higher the decision making process goes, if only because of increasing estrangement from the battlefield.
The enemy undoubtedly has a very good understanding of our rules of engagement, after all they are the ones being targeted, and they routinely take advantage of them. The ease with which they game the system gives pause for concern that the ROE place questionable constraints on the use of lethal force by our troops.
It’s not breaking news that the Afghanis have now been at war continuously for 30 years and no one in that unfortunate country has any misconceptions regarding the brutality of warfare. Those in political authority, at least those at the local level who are not particularly allied with the enemy ideologically [questions of Islamic brotherhood and political hedging aside] want this conflict to end, resolved with a defeated Taliban.
The goal of these players, many of them local chieftains and tribal leaders then intersects with the United States’ major foreign policy objective which is to establish a mechanism in Afghanistan whereby the country can best avoid backsliding into its previous role as a base for Islamic jihad directed against the U.S. interests and the West in general.
The only way to do this is to defeat the Taliban, something unquestionably within our military power.
Failing to do so in the most effective manner invokes an event horizon fraught with unacceptable risk:
One, if the Afghans get the sense that we are not serious about this matter, that we are so concerned with world opinion and its media drivers that we are not fully committed to defeating the jihadis, then they will necessarily hold back and not burn bridges with the Taliban and their sponsors.
Who could blame them?
Two, if the American public [increasingly restive about the Afghan operation, though in our opinion that is by no means a hardened position] is once again bombarded with daily body counts appearing above the fold on the front page of the New York Times et al., as U.S. troops suffer unneeded casualties while the war turns increasingly hot next spring and summer, then there will be considerable pressure, perhaps irresistible, given president Obama’s apparent lack of genuine commitment to U.S. force projection anywhere, to end the conflict and leave the Afghans to the tender mercies of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the terrorist network.
Three, though American troops have already proven themselves, beyond measure, as unfailingly courageous and effective, we can’t expect them to maintain the requisite level of morale forever in the face of overly restrictive ROE and waning political support.
For these reasons an urgent, immediate and thorough review of the ROE in Afghanistan is called for. This assessment should be done outside the extant "constant review" process referred to in the ISAF spokesman’s statement. Attention must be directed to deemphasizing concern over what really amounts to public relations, crafted to assuage players who will never support the mission and don’t like us in the first place, and instead move with all deliberate haste to assure maximization of American force effectiveness by optimizing the ROE. The key here must be to decisively defeat the Taliban and whatever remnants of al-Qaeda which might still be present and minimizing [while accepting the inevitability of] U.S. military and civilian Afghan casualties. As part of this process we must not ignore the opinions of those in positions of natural influence at the most elemental level in Afghan society, the tribal elders and imams [mirroring what was done in the successful Iraq surge] who eventually and understandably want us out, but on terms which can still be largely consistent with our legitimate foreign policy goals in the region.
We realize that our military leaders have been presented with a supreme challenge in this matter, fighting a barbaric, totally committed and clever enemy in such a way as to navigate around the numerous obstacles, many of our own construction, placed along the way.
We remain confident that if reasonableness prevails, something not entirely in evidence at this point, then we will achieve our goals and avoid fighting a pretend war which does disservice to this country our troops and the Afghan people.