Changes to the Rules of Engagement for Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 9 months ago

From the AP:

The U.S. commander in Afghanistan will soon order U.S. and NATO forces to break away from fights with militants hiding among villagers, an official said Monday, announcing one of the strongest measures yet to protect Afghan civilians.

The most contentious civilian casualty cases in recent years occurred during battles in Afghan villages when U.S. airstrikes aimed at militants also killed civilians. American commanders say such deaths hurt their mission because they turn average Afghans against the government and international forces …

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who took command of international forces in Afghanistan this month, has said his measure of effectiveness will be the “number of Afghans shielded from violence” — not the number of militants killed.

McChrystal will issue orders within days saying troops may attack insurgents hiding in Afghan houses if U.S. or NATO forces are in imminent danger, said U.S. military spokesman Rear Adm. Greg Smith.

“But if there is a compound they’re taking fire from and they can remove themselves from the area safely, without any undue danger to the forces, then that’s the option they should take,” Smith said. “Because in these compounds we know there are often civilians kept captive by the Taliban.”


J. D. Johannes takes a wait and see attitude, but is generally not opposed.

At first blush it may sound like the rule is to retreat.  I’ll save final judgement until I see the full order from the General McChrystal.  I’m wagering that it will have plenty of wiggle room for commander discretion.

But the key point of the change in the use of force is to move away from killing to suffocation.

As Marine General Mark Gurganus told me, “you can’t kill your way out of an insurgency.”

But you can suffocate an insurgency by denying its ability to operate.  You suffocate the insurgent by conducting detailed census data collection missions, ID card programs, gated communities and check points.

Uncle Jimbo at Blackfive is surprisingly supportive.

I assume there will be additional tactical changes to deny them what seems on the surface a big advantage, and this is not simply retreat but re-tooling. Since we know that the Talibs and AQ take people hostage and then attack us from their houses, maybe flattening the house with a 2,000 pounder and wiping out a family that wished they were anywhere else isn’t the most cunning plan. That coming from the King of Dead Tangos, I know.

MCQ at Blackfive isn’t so supportive.

Certainly I can understand the problems created by unintentional civilian casualties, especially in a tribal culture like Afghanistan. What I don’t understand, however, is an order which all but outlines the new tactics of the enemy.  I mean, you tell me, where, if possible, would you initiate all of your contact from now on if you’re the Taliban?

The Small Wars Council has a long and involved discussion thread on the new ROE.

Anthony Hoh: “How many times do you get shot at from the same compound/village that you drive by every day before you can do something about it?

Ken White: “I’ll give it a month or two before it quietly disappears. Not a smart move on several levels…”

IntelTrooper: “One recurring theme in talking to Afghans was “The Russians were jerks, but at least they never ran from a fight.” ISAF is already too prone to break contact. I can’t see this helping that.”

Ken White: “I suspect the civilians who are nominally innocent will get more visitation by various bad guys and said civilians will not really appreciate the extra attention (nor will they be happy that a small source of income, claiming non-existent casualties, has been removed).  Aside from the impacts on own forces, the net result is most likely to be more, not fewer, civilian casualties …”

But the discussion thread is a mixed bag, with some council members advocating the new rules in the interest of application of good counterinsurgency doctrine.  The discussion thread soon becomes oriented towards good practices rather than ROE (as pointed out by Ken White).

Analysis & Commentary

Let’s briefly revisit the ROE.  We have discussed the standing rules of engagement, the theater-specific rules of engagement for Iraq, and even the rules on the use of force.  Our problems with the existing ROE and RUF are legendary, and include the insurmountable initial problem that they are constructed around defensive operations and personal and unit self defense and include no discussion or guidance for offensive operations.  This is why General Kearney wanted to charge two Army snipers with murder for targeting a Taliban commander who didn’t happen to be holding a weapon.

Insurgents learn to game the system, as this event shows in Ramadi, Iraq, as reported by David Danelo.

The vehicle commander, Corporal Ronnie Davis, is in front of me holding a pair of binos.  Three other Marines peer down a street where Mujahideen have been firing at us from multi-story buildings scarred by gunfire and explosions.  While we exchange fire with the Muj, other observation assets available to 1 st Battalion, 6th Marines are mapping enemy positions for future operations.

“That’s the same two guys.  They’ve crossed back and forth four times,” Corporal Davis announces, referring to a pair of unarmed Iraqis who have run for cover.  Because these men are unarmed, the Americans under the Rules of Engagement are not allowed to shoot at them—even though gunfire is coming at us from that direction.

Get the picture?  The insurgents had emplaced weapons, fired them, dropped them, run to the next station and picked up another weapon, fired, and were repeating the process as long as they wanted.  The Marines couldn’t return fire because they never saw the insurgents run across the street holding a weapon.

Michael Totten describes for us what happens when insurgents are no longer able to game the system.

“AQI announced the Islamic State of Iraq in a parade downtown on October 15, 2006,” said Captain McGee. “This was their response to Sahawa al Anbar. They were threatened by the tribal movement so they accelerated their attacks against tribal leaders. They ramped up the murder and intimidation. It was basically a hostile fascist takeover of the city.”

Sheikh Jassim’s experience was typical.

“Jassim was pissed off because American artillery fire was landing in his area,” Colonel Holmes said. “But he wasn’t pissed off at us. He was pissed off at Al Qaeda because he knew they always shot first and we were just shooting back.”

So it’s possible that that this change to the ROE will help the Taliban, or anti-Afghan forces.  It is equally questionable whether simply leaving things as they are wouldn’t be better.  But besides the questionable tactical value in the change, we work best with examples.  Those who traffic in stories are some of the best teachers.

General McChrystal’s guidance further complicates the matter and hamstrings U.S. troops.  To be sure, The Captain’s Journal understands the damage done to the campaign when innocents are killed.  But no one intends to kill noncombatants with kinetic operations, and this leads us to the final – and most difficult – issue of all.  The guidance seems to be prima facie draconian, i.e., back off of engagements if possible.  This is a sure recipe for failure of the campaign.  But assuming the more gracious interpretation that U.S. troops should back off of engagements when they believe noncombatants will be involved, this raises the question of judgment and probability.

The Marines are currently engaged in heavy combat operations in Now Zad where several hundred Taliban fighters have cordoned themselves off from noncombatants to fight the Marines.  We pray for such engagements, but most of them are more ambiguous.

Take for instance the engagements in 2008 between the Marines and Taliban in Garmser (see also Marines in Helmand).  The Marines were involved in what they termed “constant and continual” contact and engagement with the enemy, and fire fights that at times involved “full bore reloading.”  They killed some 400 Taliban fighters in the engagements, and during this period although they worked the population by opening a complaint shop for home damage, the 24th MEU would have been unable to prove that noncombatants weren’t still resident in the city when kinetic operations began.

Thus one of the most important Marine Corps operations thus far in the campaign wouldn’t have been  conducted under the new ROE because there was no certainty regarding noncombatants.  This fixes the issue for us.  While exceptions make for bad law, this operation was not an exception.  The rules of engagement should provide adequate guidance during operations which prove to be the rule rather than the exception.

For a visual depiction of an engagement in Anbar that wouldn’t have been able to be conducted, see the video below from Recon by Fire.

Prior: Rules of Engagement Category

Trackbacks & Pingbacks


  1. On June 24, 2009 at 6:12 pm, TSAlfabet said:

    Allow me to apologize up front for what is sure to be a volcanic comment.

    If I understand the gist of the quoted reactions to the new ROE’s, most are supportive because, as Johannes said,”the key point of the change in the use of force is to move away from killing to suffocation.” And others cited by the Captain seem to be operating under a similar delusion.

    Let’s cut the B.S. and get right to the heart of it: there will be NO suffocation of any bad guys in A-stan because there are not now and will never be (as far as I can fathom from Administration narratives) enough U.S. forces to do anything like the COIN operations needed to ‘suffocate’ an insurgency. A-stan is now in the hands of a cold, calculating politician who will do just enough to say he tried but never enough to win.

    When is someone in the media, Republican ranks, or military going to clearly nail this infernal excuse for a strategy that lacks the basic requisite of troops to get the job done? Does Dick Cheney have to spend his life on the Sunday talk shows to point out the glaring malfeasance we are seeing from this Administration? How can Petraeus and McChrystal live with themselves when they sell a strategy that, while sound in principle, they know cannot be accomplished with a measly 68,000 troops?

    It is stunning to see Small Wars Journal and others playing along with this charade. What is the point of arguing over ROE’s? It is like arguing over the best arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic as it shudders from the impact of the iceberg. Yes, of course, the U.S. should try to limit civilian casualties and we can’t kill our way out of an insurgency and we need to protect the civilian population etc… But since we know right NOW that the Administration is not going to send anywhere near enough troops to protect the population in any of the ways necessary to make sense of the new ROE’s, what the use?! “Gated communities” ?? “Checkpoints” ?? As TCJ has pointed out over and over, this sort of thing is never going to happen from a FOB.

    Ladies and gentlemen, the U.S. military is willingly going along with orders from the C-in-C to bend over, smile and allow the Taliban to kick their butts. It is so frustrating that it cause for weeping. But we will save that for the families of the poor soldiers who will die for this lame-brain strategy.

  2. On June 24, 2009 at 8:42 pm, jbrookins said:

    This does not sound good to me. I hope there is more to it than what we’ve seen so far.

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You are currently reading "Changes to the Rules of Engagement for Afghanistan", entry #3194 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,General McChrystal,Rules of Engagement and was published June 23rd, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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