Rules of Engagement and Counterinsurgency Malpractice

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 10 months ago

From The Australian:

AUSTRALIA’S defence chiefs are already reconciled to a long-term Australian military presence in Afghanistan.

Yesterday’s announcement of a return of special forces to Afghanistan confirms that that country remains at the centre of Australia’s military contribution to the global jihadist war.

The SAS and the commandos are essential to ensuring that our engineers and trade specialists can go about their civic rebuilding tasks with the support of localAfghans. The ground forces are sustained by headquarters, intelligence and logistics staff, as well as vital air support, bringing the total size of the force to at least 1000.

The experience of the past few months has shown that without aggressive, long-range patrolling and intelligence gathering by Australian special forces, the threat posed by Taliban insurgents in Oruzgan province will soon rebound. Tight rules of engagement for a number of NATO countries, including The Netherlands, inhibit their combat forces from taking on the Taliban in offensive operations

We will revisit this last sentence in a few moments.  In a recent article in Harper’s Magazine, defense policy expert Edward Luttwak weighs in on the current conflict in Iraq in an interesting article entitled Dead End: Counterinsurgency Warfare as Military Malpractice.   After recognizing that involvement of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and effective political machinations are necessary for victory in any counterinsurgency, he makes the following observation that becomes seminal for his article.

Much more questionable is the proposition that follows, which is presented as self-evident, that a necessary if not sufficient condition of victory is to provide what the insurgents cannot: basic public services, physical reconstruction, the hope of economic development and social amelioration. The hidden assumption here is that there is only one kind of politics in this world, a politics in which popular support is important or even decisive, and that such support can be won by providing better government. Yet the extraordinary persistence of dictatorships as diverse in style as the regimes of

Cuba, Libya, North Korea, and Syria shows that in fact government needs no popular support as long as it can secure obedience. As for better government, that is certainly wanted in France, Norway, or the United States, but obviously not in Afghanistan or Iraq, where many people prefer indigenous and religious oppression to the freedoms offered by foreign invaders.

The very word “guerrilla,? which now refers only to a tactic, was first used to describe the ferocious insurgency of the illiterate Spanish poor against their would-be liberators, under the leadership of their traditional oppressors. On July 6, 1808, King Joseph of Spain presented a draft constitution that for the first time in Spain’s history offered an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, and the abolition of the remaining feudal privileges of the aristocracy and of the Church. At that time, abbeys, monasteries, and bishops still owned every building and every piece of land in 3,148 towns and villages, which were inhabited by some of Europe’s most wretched tenants. Despite the fact that the new constitution would have liberated them and let them keep their harvests for themselves, the Spanish peasantry failed to rise up in its support. Instead, they obeyed the priests, who summoned them to fight against the ungodly innovations of the foreign invader. For Joseph was the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, placed on the Spanish throne by French troops. That was all that mattered to most Spaniards—not what was proposed but by whom it was proposed.

This observation bears close resemblance to those I have made concerning the political presuppositions upon which Operation Iraqi Freedom was based.  The naming of Paul Bremer to be U.S. administrator of Iraq and the reflexive push towards a parliamentary system of government informs us concerning the fundamental weakness of the theoretical framework upon which our planning was done: we relied on the supposed healing powers of democracy to form post-war Iraq, healing powers that do not exist.  The very system we implemented virtually ensured that the disaffected Sunni population was never “in play” in our attempt to win hearts and minds, while also ensuring that the single most powerful bloc, i.e., the Sadrists, could not be held accountable by a Prime Minister who owed his position to that bloc.

But if the answer was never the democratization of Iraq, then to what should we have turned?  Here is where Luttwak is at his best and most controversial, yet also perhaps his most innovative and daring.  Luttwak observes that to win a counterinsurgency, the occupiers must be willing to meet out harsher punishment than the insurgents.

Occupiers can thus be successful without need of any specialized counterinsurgency methods or tactics if they are willing to out-terrorize the insurgents, so that the fear of reprisals outweighs the desire to help the insurgents or their threats. The Germans also established secure and economical forms of occupation by exploiting isolated resistance attacks to achieve much broader demonstration effects. Lone German dispatch riders were easily toppled by tensed wires or otherwise intercepted and killed, but then troops would arrive on the scene to burn or demolish the surrounding buildings or farms or the nearest village, seizing and killing anyone who aroused suspicion or just happened to be there. After word of the terrible deeds spread and was duly exaggerated, German dispatch riders could safely continue on their way, until reaching some other uninstructed part of the world, where the sequence would have to be repeated.

Likewise in the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were skilled in using terror to secure their pervasive territorial control and very ready to use any amount of violence against civilians, from countless individual assassinations to mass executions, as in Hue in 1968. The Communist cause had its enthusiasts, “fellow travelers,? and opportunistic followers, but Vietnamese who were none of the above, and not outright enemies, were compelled to collaborate actively or passively by the threat of the violence so liberally used. That is exactly what the insurgents in Iraq are now doing, and this is no coincidence. All insurgencies follow the same pattern. Locals who are not sympathetic to begin with, who cannot be recruited to the cause, are compelled to collaborate by the fear of violence, readily reinforced by the demonstrative killing of those who insist on refusing to help the resistance. Neutrality is not an option.

By contrast, the capacity of American armed forces to inflict collective punishments does not extend much beyond curfews and other such restrictions, inconvenient to be sure and perhaps sufficient to impose real hardship, but obviously insufficient to out-terrorize insurgents. Needless to say, this is not a political limitation that Americans would ever want their armed forces to overcome, but it does leave the insurgents in control of the population, the real “terrain? of any insurgency …

All its best methods, all its clever tactics, all the treasure and blood that the United States has been willing to expend, cannot overcome the crippling ambivalence of occupiers who refuse to govern, and their principled and inevitable refusal to out-terrorize the insurgents, the necessary and sufficient condition of a tranquil occupation.

Once again, this observation is eerily reminiscent of remarks I have made in earlier articles.  In Hope and Brutality in Anbar, I observed that “so-called ‘nonkinetic’ operations to win the hearts and minds of the population (candy for the children, reconstruction for the adults, pedialyte for infants) are ineffectual when violence and torture win the day.  A piece of candy can’t compete with a few holes put into your rib cage with a power drill because you cooperated with the Americans.”  The insurgents (e.g., disaffected Fedayeen Saddam), foreign fighters, AQI and AAS and other rogue elements, have used violence and terror as an exclusive-use procedure because it has not been necessary to transition to support of the population.  Terror has been enough to keep them in submission and out of play for the U.S. troops.  For this reason, Victor Davis Hanson cautions that the so-called “surge” alone is not enough.

There have been a number of anomalies in this war, as a brilliant American tactical victory in removing Saddam has not translated into quick strategic success. But one of the most worrisome developments is the narrowing of the recent debate to the single issue of surging troops, as if the problem all along has just been one of manpower.

It hasn’t. The dilemma involves the need to fight an asymmetrical war of counter-insurgency that hinges on what troops do, rather than how many are engaged. We have gone from a conventional victory over Saddam Hussein to an asymmetrical struggle against jihadist insurgents to what is more or less third-party policing of random violence between Sunnis and Shiites.

Our past errors were not so much dissolving a scattered Iraqi military or even de-Baathification, but rather giving an appearance of impotence, whether in allowing the looting to continue or pulling back from Fallujah or giving a reprieve to the Sadr militias.

So, yes, send more troops to Iraq — but only if they are going to be allowed to hunt down and kill vicious and sectarians in a manner that they have not been allowed to previously.

This surge should be not viewed in terms of manpower alone. Rather it should be planned as the corrective to past misguided laxity, in which no quarter will now be given to die-hard jihadists as we pursue victory, not better policing. We owe that assurance to the thousands more of young Americans who now will be sent into harm’s way.

The U.S. population would rightly recoil at the notion that the U.S. armed forces should “out-terrorize the terrorists.”  This notion is so fundamentally contrary to the Judeo-Christian tradition upon which America was founded that U.S. forces wouldn’t go along with such actions even if codified into law.  But Luttwak’s points are salient, and Hanson’s point about giving the appearance of impotence is correct.  The current rules of engagement prohibit the use of force for the protection of property, so when the Iraqi population looked to the U.S. to protect their belongings, no such protection was forthcoming and thus the population was shown in the most powerful picture possible that lawlessness was the order of the day.  It shouldn’t be any surprise that lawlessness continues four years after the seeds were planted by our rules of engagement immediately upon overthrow of the regime.

If the answer is not the democratization of Iraq, and the value system that underlies the American warrior prevents him from terrorizing the population in order to win a counterinsurgency, then in what strategy lies the answer?   Architectural assistant of the security plan currently underway in Iraq, Dave Kilcullen, answers in an interesting article at the Small Wars Journal.  After examining the conundrum that Luttwak puts us in, Kilcullen points out that the solution to the problem of counterinsurgency is outlined in the counterinsurgency field manual, FM 3-24, including all of its aspects (legitimate government, services, etc.).  Kilcullen continues by saying:

The methods Dr. Luttwak mentions are thus not a prescription for success, but a recipe for disaster. As he quickly admits, U.S. and Coalition forces would never consider such methods for a moment. And this is just as well, since this approach does not work. The best method we know of, despite its imperfections, has worked in numerous campaigns over several decades, and is the one we are now using: counterinsurgency. I admit (and have argued elsewhere) that classical counterinsurgency needs updating for current conditions. But the Nazis, Syrians, Taliban, Iranians, Saddam Hussein and others all tried brutalizing the population, and the evidence is that this simply does not work in the long term.

But this last statement seems clearly contrary to the facts.  The Afghans could not have overthrown the Taliban without the power of the U.S., the Nazis had complete domination of Europe (and were it not for a three front war, might possibly have won), Saddam Hussein had unmitigated power over Iraq, and the village brutality of the Viet Cong was pivotal in the war in Southeast Asia.

It is early to say what the effects of the security plan will be, but the rules of engagement have proven themselves to be a continuing impediment to the implementation of security.  In previous coverage I have summarized the effects of the ROE, and I have also noted a stunning example of insurgent mockery of U.S. troops by knowledge and use of the ROE against them, obviously by pre-staging weapons and dropping them because they know that U.S. forces cannot engage unarmed persons.  These instances will not be rehearsed here.  But it is clear that the ROE have not only failed adequately to protect U.S. forces, they have also become an impediment to offensive operations in Iraq and elsewhere.  Rules of engagement have become such an impediment to NATO forces – who are prohibited from offensive engagements with the Taliban – that Australia is increasing force size in Afghanistan to mitigate the effective loss of troops.

Setting up the choice between Luttwak and FM 3-24 as the only alternatives is false.  There is a middle ground that avoids intentional collateral damage while also encouraging robust offensive operations against the enemy.  Security is more important in a counterinsurgency than winning hearts and minds.  If the population knows that the U.S. forces will not shoot into a home (from which fire is coming) for fear of collateral damage, then they can never stand up to the insurgents, and the choice is clear.  The U.S. cannot or will not protect them and they must submit to the insurgents.  The presence of insurgents in their home or neighborhood becomes de facto security strictly because of the ROE.

Roger W. Barnett, Professor Emeritus of the Naval War College, points the way towards hard decisions in the future concerning ROE.

International law is clearly incapable of coping with situations where the law is exploited in order to create an advantage for the lawbreakers. In like manner, current international law cannot bring those responsible for genocide in Africa before the bar. Nor can it possibly find the means to cope with those who subsidize child soldiers or reward the families of suicidal terrorists. Neither can it deal with unwitting car bomb volunteers, the latest wrinkle in Iraq, where a carjacking occurs and during the process a wireless-activated bomb is attached. The car and driver are then released and remotely detonated later, at a place where casualties can be maximized.

The antiquated systems of doctrine, international law, and rules of engagement currently tilt the environment to the adversary’s advantage. My book Asymmetrical Warfare sets forth this thesis in detail, and argues that these systems and rules must change or, in the long run, we will forfeit our freedom.

Insurgent tactics have long ago far outrun just war theory.  The remaining question is whether we will advocate the necessary changes to ROE or let the lawyers write rules for war.



  • kat-missouri

    My major problem with Luttwak is that he used incomplete historical references to try to prove his point.

    One of the main issues is to believe that people will, for the most part, fight against their best interests for an ideology. That may be true for some, but not all and counterinsurgency bets on the those who are not part of the “some”. That is why there is both a military and socio/political part of a counterinsurgency.

    One of his references was to Roman’s and their brutality in putting down “insurgents” as if this indicated the major reason the rest of the empire did not revolt.

    What is missing there is the piece where there were benefits to being part of the empire. Security, economics and even religious freedom and potential for political/social advancement.

    In short, not all people will fight against benefits or be accepting of those that do.

    However, I will agree with the point that people need to feel secure in order to feel the “benefits” of a politico/socio/economic system. However, like our own society, that security does not necessarily mean a total cessation of violence.

    For instance, the latest mass murder in Virginia. Having seen and heard about it, we may feel “less secure”, but we do not feel so insecure that we believe our government or local forces/laws are incapable of protecting us.

    This is the security that must be reached. Not utopia, but something visibly and empathetically less than it is today.

    This does not require that we do “total war” on the whole of Iraq or even parts of it. If we were to subscribe to Luttwak’s notions completely, than we would have seen Fallujah and Najaf in 2004 change the battlefield completely. In otherwords, the “brutality” of these fights would have instilled enough fear to make population sit down and shut up.

    And, based on Luttwak’s notion, it is not as if we should have to do it everyday everywhere. He specifically noted that the Romans were more about making examples. Specific incidents of brutality few and far between that were just brutal enough to keep the people down in between each event.

    That cannot be the only answer since, as I noted, we have certainly had plenty of brutal acts in between, not to mention the daily beating down of doors and rounding up of men who are currently in the prison system in Iraq.

    I think that talking about this and imagining it as THE solution is disingenuous wishful thinking at best and criminal at worst.

    My complete commentary here:

    and here

  • Bob

    Very interesting article.

    The bold accented bit is not true though. The Netherlands has and is taken part in offensive operations against the taliban. During Operation Medusa with ground troops, firesupport in the form of artillery and air support with F-16s and Apache gunships. The same for Baaz Tsuka and the current Operation Achilles in which a Dutch para was killed just recently.

You are currently reading "Rules of Engagement and Counterinsurgency Malpractice", entry #494 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Iraq,Rules of Engagement,Small Wars and was published April 16th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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