Rules of Engagement Slow Progress in Marjah

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 5 months ago

In combat action near Marjah:

Spc. Andrew Szala of Newport, R.I., tried to keep the injured man talking, conscious. He chatted about the plot of a season of the American comedy series, “The Office,” a send-up of white-collar life.

“Michael starts his own paper company. Pam goes with him. Jim stays behind,” Szala said as the battle raged.

In the new ambush, a man was firing from above a green door. Spc. Richard French of Indianapolis was in the hatch of a Stryker, an American military vehicle, that pulled up on the canal road. He saw the man and opened fire with his M4 rifle.

“My first three rounds were tracers. I watched them go right into him. I watched him fall,” French said later. “First time I ever killed anybody. That was interesting.”

Close to the road and relative safety, soldiers saw a man in black walking. He was unarmed. They watched him in their scopes but did not shoot. Western forces in Afghanistan are operating under rules of engagement, or ROE, that restrict them from acting against people unless they commit a hostile act or show hostile intent. American troops say the Taliban can fire on them, then set aside their weapon and walk freely out of a compound, possibly toward a weapons cache in another location.

In combat action in Marjah:

With gunfire coming from several directions all day long, troops managed to advance just 500 yards deeper as they fought off small squads of gunmen.

US military spokesman Captain Abraham Sipe said: “There’s still a good bit of the land still to be cleared. We’re moving at a very deliberative pace.”

Western soldiers complained about rules of engagement that are supposed to prevent them firing at people unless they commit a “hostile act” or show “hostile intent.”

US Lance Corporal Travis Anderson from Iowa alleged that Marjah residents are “using our rules of engagement against us,” stating that his platoon had repeatedly seen men dropping their guns into ditches before walking away to melt among civilians.

13_Marines_Marjah

1/3 Marines Mortar Crew in combat in Marjah, Afghanistan

Analysis & Commentary

Recall that the standing rules of engagement (ROE) are modified by theater-specific ROE, such as the rules for Operation Iraqi Freedom (at one time on Wikileaks) and more recently a tactical directive promulgated under the authority of General McChrystal.  There are parts of the directive (perhaps large parts) that have not been divulged to the public, but we do know that there are some significant restrictions on troop movement, cordons and searches and kinetic operations.  For instance, the ROE prohibits night or surprise searches, and firing at the enemy unless the enemy is preparing to fire first.  Pentagon officials have admitted that these rules have opened up new space for the insurgents.  In McChrystal’s own words, “If you are in a situation where you are under fire from the enemy… if there is any chance of creating civilian casualties or if you don’t know whether you will create civilian casualties, if you can withdraw from that situation without firing, then you must do so.”

I had predicted that these rules would have the opposite affect from that intended, i.e., that they would fail to prevent noncombatant deaths and might even cause more than if we were to implement a more robust set of ROE or simply leave the rules unchanged.  Strategy Page sources explain a bit more about the unintended consequences of the restrictive ROE.

The fighting in Marjah would be going more quickly were it not for the more strict ROE (Rules Of Engagement), intended to minimize civilian casualties. The Taliban and drug gangs have invested a lot in the local media, to make each civilian death, at the hands of foreign troops, a major story. The majority of civilian combat deaths are at the hands of the Taliban or drug gangs, and the local media plays those down (or else). It’s a sweet deal for the bad guys, and a powerful battlefield tool. The civilians appreciate the attention, but the ROE doesn’t reduce overall civilian deaths, because the longer the Taliban have control of civilians in a combat situations, the more they kill. The Taliban often use civilians as human shields, and kill those who refuse, or are suspected of disloyalty. In places like Marjah, civilians are eager to get the Taliban killed or driven away, as quickly as possible. The number of civilian deaths, at the hands of NATO/Afghan forces, in the operations around Marhah, are spectacularly low by historical standards. The troops know this, some of the civilians know this, but the media doesn’t care and the Taliban need a media win, as a way to extract something that is, otherwise, a military disaster for them.

Some of this is the tendency to micromanage the campaign on the part of field grade and staff officers, an evolution that appears to have been going on for years.  But despite the best of intentions, the current rules place U.S. troops in greater danger than before, removes battle space latitude and decision-making from the enlisted men, NCOs and lower ranking officers who are in the actual combat, and add absolutely nothing to the good will of the Afghans who are noncombatants because no lives are being saved as a result of the rule changes.  The rules are a spectacular failure.  It sounds like a government program, no?




You are currently reading "Rules of Engagement Slow Progress in Marjah", entry #4558 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Marjah,Rules of Engagement and was published February 16th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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