Rules of Engagement: Letting the Enemy Go Free

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 10 months ago

More than two years ago I outlined the calamity that British rules of engagement had caused to their campaign in Basra.  The security situation began very well at the initiation of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but devolved into one in which the British were completely ineffective at fighting the insurgency and had evacuated their outposts and retreated to their largest base.

Due to leaked MoD papers we now know certain details directly from the British on just how hamstrung their troop were due to the ROE.

Despite fighting “the most sustained conflict since the Korean War”, the rules left troops with one hand tied behind their backs, the secret documents said. Ministers refused to change the rules although they caused “significant” casualties.

British soldiers were banned from opening fire unless the Iraqis were actually pointing their weapons at them.

Insurgents from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army quickly “worked out” the rules and exploited them causing many casualties, according to the documents.

“On many occasions,” says one, British patrols in the town of Amarah saw “Muqtada militia stood on rooftops from where they had fired in the past, with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms at their feet”.

Although clearly waiting to attack, the Iraqis could not be fired on because they were not pointing their weapons at the British. As the patrol passed, say the documents, the insurgents would then “pick up their weapons and fire”.

The documents leaked to The Daily Telegraph are secret “post-operational reports” written by British commanders in Iraq, and classified transcripts of interviews they gave to the MoD.

In them, Major General Andrew Stewart, the senior British operational commander in Iraq, says: “The US could not believe that in our area you were not able to fire at someone who had a weapon just because he wasn’t pointing it at you.”

The Americans were on warfighting tactics, yet Britain stuck to its “peacekeeping” rules despite a significant upsurge in violence after the arrest of a key al-Sadr lieutenant in 2004 …

In one of its fiercest engagements, the “Battle of Danny Boy”, at a checkpoint in May 2004, the British were attacked by 100 insurgents, leaving two soldiers seriously injured. Yet, the documents say, they had to allow 40 of the attackers to “walk away” with their weapons, after they lowered their guns. The same people later attacked the unit again, killing two soldiers.

The documents appear to show that Gen Stewart tried to get the rules of engagement changed, but was frustrated by ministers.

He says that the rules his men were working under did contain a “dormant war-fighting profile,” allowing more action, but “activation of this profile was reserved to Ministerial level” and did not happen.

Gen Stewart describes the rules of engagement as “constraining,” and “frustrating” but says they “did help us win over the locals by not being over-robust… you have to show restraint if you are to win hearts and minds”.

From another account by a British Soldier, “In 2003 the rules were that if someone shot at you, you could shoot them back but not if they were turned with their back to you.”

This last part about restrictive ROE helping to win over the locals is a bit of wishful thinking and fatuous, doctrinaire absurdity.  If the locals had been won over they would have given up the insurgency.  As it was, the Iraqi Security Forces, combined with U.S. forces, had to retake Basra while the British sat at their base watching (later retreating entirely from Basra).

The ISF regularly dismissed the British as sissies and cowards even though they clearly are not, and British Colonel Tim Collins has claimed that the British retreat from Basra has badly damaged the reputation of the British Army (this damage being inflicted by MoD strategy rather than the enlisted men who have been proven to be brave and well trained).

This example should be a clarion call to give chase to and kill the enemy as the surest way to win the hearts and minds of the locals, and thus win the campaign.  You might recall some of the rules of engagement in Afghanistan?

• No night or surprise searches.

• Villagers have to be warned prior to searches.

• ANA or ANP must accompany U.S. units on searches.

• U.S. soldiers may not fire at the enemy unless the enemy is preparing to fire first.

• U.S. forces cannot engage the enemy if civilians are present.

• Only women can search women.

• 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.

These same rules refused artillery support for four Marines who were killed in combat action in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan while pleading for help via radio.  Having forgotten the lessons of Iraq (where robust ROE in Anbar by the Marines helped to win that part of the campaign), we have reverted to the failed British model in Basra.  Intentionally repeating failed history is the strategy of losers.




You are currently reading "Rules of Engagement: Letting the Enemy Go Free", entry #4267 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Basra,British Army,General McChrystal,Rules of Engagement and was published December 1st, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

If you're interested in what else the The Captain's Journal has to say, you might try thumbing through the archives and visiting the main index, or; perhaps you would like to learn more about TCJ.

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