Problems with the Applied Rules of Engagement

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 6 months ago

The standing Rules of engagement (ROE) begins with the orders from the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, goes in level of detail to theater specific rules of engagement (such as the tactical directive written by General McChrystal’s staff), and are given context with modifiers and embellishments such as General McChrystal’s statement that “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.”  The ROE category supplies the necessary detail to study this in more depth.

So the standing ROE, the tactical directive, the intentionality of the commander expressed in speeches, and the behind the scenes meetings and agreements, all come to bear for the enlisted man in localized or small unit-specific ROE that concerns things like how far out cones must be placed to demarcate where firing can begin for vehicles that are suspected being threats, whether troops in contact can return fire, when they can return fire, under what conditions specific combined arms weapons systems can be employed (mortars, CAS, etc.), and so on and so forth.  A JAG typically accompanies at least Battalion level deployments and certainly regimental deployments in order to create and help enforce all of those localized rules.  Welcome to the enlisted man’s life.

Now, as for how the overarching rules have come to bear on the enlisted man’s life in Afghanistan (as if we need more examples), two recent reports fill in the gaps for us.  The first comes from Time.

The scouts were initially dispatched to provide oversight for a clearing crew that ultimately had to be evacuated. Hours into a recent clearing operation, a member of Alpha Company had stepped on a crush box that took part of his leg; then, the next day, the 3rd Platoon was led into a trap. A local man responded to the Americans’ request for a place to bed down for the night by taking them to an empty compound that was rigged with explosives. Although a bomb-sniffing dog and mine detector swept the place before platoon members entered, an IED placed by the doorway exploded near a group inside, gravely wounding one soldier. A second went off four minutes later, injuring another.

Because military rules dictate that any soldier within 160 ft. (50 m) of a blast must head back to base for evaluation, the entire platoon had to be removed from the battlefield, putting the clearing mission in jeopardy. The scouts were ordered to pick up where Alpha Company left off. Despite the threat of more bombs in the vicinity, they went to the same cluster of buildings to finish the search and to assess what had happened. Upon reaching the compound where the suspect had led the soldiers into harm’s way, they encountered two elders who said they had just returned from Kandahar and knew nothing of the man in question. The U.S. officers were skeptical, but the elders insisted that the bomb-rigged building was in fact a former Taliban madrasah, or religious school, that had not been occupied for several months, though militants regularly pass through the area.

Near the end of their operation, the scouts were dispatched to examine some compounds connected to a surge of IED activity on a stretch of road. As they approached the area late in the afternoon, a knot of well-built men in black turbans stood outside, motionless. A couple of them wore faint grins. Like everyone else in Zhari, they claimed to be farmers, but platoon officers suspected that, based on their mien and location, they were militants. Because the men were not carrying weapons, however, there was nothing to be done but walk away — in strict compliance with the U.S. military’s rules of engagement. One soldier likened it to being “handcuffed.”

The second example comes from Washington Examiner.

To the U.S. Army soldiers and Marines serving here, some things seem so obviously true that they are beyond debate. Among those perceived truths: Tthe restrictive rules of engagement that they have to fight under have made serving in combat far more dangerous for them, while allowing the Taliban to return to a position of strength.

“If they use rockets to hit the [forward operating base] we can’t shoot back because they were within 500 meters of the village. If they shoot at us and drop their weapon in the process we can’t shoot back,” said Spc. Charles Brooks, 26, a U.S. Army medic with 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, in Zabul province.

Word had come down the morning Brooks spoke to this reporter that watch towers surrounding the base were going to be dismantled because Afghan village elders, some sympathetic to the Taliban, complained they were invading their village privacy. “We have to take down our towers because it offends them and now the Taliban can set up mortars and we can’t see them,” Brooks added, with disgust.

These examples are particularly interesting because they only partially deal with ROE proper, and to some extent deal with the milieu of cultural sensitivity imposed upon the troops within the context of counterinsurgency.  Note how restricted the troops are when it comes to interaction with the local population.  This has nothing whatsoever to do with 360 degree shooting when you feel threatened.  This has to do with force projection.

The Soldiers in the first instance should have stopped, questioned the suspected Taliban fighters, questioned them again, searched them, isolated them and questioned them again, obtained some biometric data (iris scans and fingerprints), issued some threats to them if their suspicions were in any way confirmed, handcuffed them if necessary to detain them, and arrested them if they found something that needed further investigation.  Force projection will end Taliban rule, and timidness will ensure the smirks they now get when they pass by the fighters.

In the second example, the concerns of the locals outweighed the force protection of U.S. troops.  The end result was not to win the allegiance of the locals, but to ensure that they see the Taliban as the winning side.  The Taliban set up mortars, the U.S. troops back down if we (the population) say that we don’t like their towers (as we were told to say by the Taliban).

In both cases the myth is that the population will side with U.S. troops, when in fact the Taliban are seen as more powerful and determined.  Counterinsurgency is not as complex as it is made out to be by the elite who want to win the people with projects, wells, jirgas and sit-downs for tea.

We are set up for failure in Afghanistan, no matter what the narrative says and no matter how many good reports come from the front by the PAOs who talk endlessly about community projects.  Oh, and as for the real force projection, that is still only happening by the SOF troopers who conduct raids in the night to get their high value targets and then spirit off by helicopter to the local FOB for debriefing.  The balance of the force is designed to be policemen by campaign commanders, even though they sometimes get involved in heavy fire fights where they are provided with much less support than the SOF troopers.  How is this whole program working out?  Who is asking for the talks – us or the Taliban?

Finally, I must again comment that this campaign is not being conducted like Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Do you doubt this?  Consider again Recon by Fire.  Tell me about how cultural sensitivity won Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Go ahead.

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  1. On October 20, 2010 at 6:24 am, Taking Tokyo said:

    Another Great Post, And a lot to work with here..

    Let’s look at things from a very basic level and try to analyze what is wrong with this picture.

    A. Problem A. What happens when a force gets tied to a location-FOB/CP?

    No matter how it gets described you are tied down and you are tethered like a German Shepherd in the Yard.

    You can go out only so far, and only so many ways. You go out and you come back.

    The enemy knows where you start from, they know where you start from, and they know how far you can go. What this boils down to is the basic instruction all over the South in this case is “leave the wire twice day.”

    Since the enemy can figure this out also, it does not take much for them to plan the logical routes and prepare to harass and IED if you they can. It does not even take a very large force. They know our guys are leaving tiwce day, can only go a certain number of routes and places(usually tied down by some village etc) and they just have to slowly make an operational plan to ambush, IED and attack you over time.

    This is a situation we will never win. And our entire force is spread out everywhere doing this exact same thing all over the country.

    Now what happens every time they ambush you or IED you?

    Well the population quickly figures out that we are in fact tethered like strong German Shepherds on a sturdy chain, and not only that when the ambush goes off or one of our soldiers gets injured they realize that the Taliban has in fact figured out that we are tethered and can only go so far twice a day.

    So what do they think after a few weeks?

    1. We do not know how to fight these guys

    2. Since we are tethered and stuck we are actually making the place more dangerous for them and on top of that are not very successful.

    3. When we come to drink tea, the Elders legitimately in the back of their minds are thinking “what is going on with these foreigners? They come to drink tea, but I, them, and the Taliban know, that there is a good chance of an ambush or IED for these guys on the way back to the FOB today. So why are they doing something which is making their lives more risky and endangering my village?”

    4. Because of the crazy way we are doing things we are making it worse for the Villagers, ourselves and the Taliban do not need to say “make my day” because we already have.

    What happens after a month?

    A. Our brave soldiers are pissed off, frustrated, injured and/or God Forbid dead. The regular enemy attacks make it hard to think about anything else, and they remember every day how tethered they really are to the FOB.

    B. The villagers are shaking their heads wondering how the whole area got so bad, and are thinking of moving to Kandahar because no one can do anything now. It is bad for them and good for the Taliban.

    C. The Enemy has done their job, the whole population wishes there was no FOB and is thinking about leaving and mad at everyone.

    The sad thing is we did this to ourselves, and it does not take many insurgents to tie down our tethered force.

    What should we be doing…? I will write more later

  2. On October 23, 2010 at 10:18 am, Paul Edson said:

    The observation that SOF are at war as soldiers while “force projection” is functioning in the manner of police, is an important observation.
    We have been driven to this position by our cultural sensibilities, and try it we will. If the troops and the leadership become as talented as the Sheriff I knew growing up, we have the means of controlling the organized opposition. He functioned at the edge of the cultural boundary of good and evil, measured the players accurately and reduced the effect of “evil” in our community to a level his constituents were comfortable to live with.
    I spent some time in the military, and found it full of talent and wisdom even though it struggles with all the burdens of any bureaucracy.
    We will see over time if the talent and the willingness to do public service at great personal risk are up to the task.

  3. On December 15, 2010 at 9:50 pm, trianglewhip said:

    If we applied such crap like these ROEs’ in WW2, we be speaking German or Japanese. Take your pick..
    The unconditinal of the Geneva Conventions are the root of it..

  4. On December 15, 2010 at 9:53 pm, trianglewhip said:

    BTW; There no such thing as INNOCENT civilians, over there. They are just collaborators. Which side they’ll lean on depends..

  5. On January 28, 2011 at 11:27 pm, Barb said:

    Please join the Facebook page ROE-Rules of Engagement for interesting discussion and information on ROE’s. This site encourages action — calling your reps, making your voice heard!

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Rules of Engagement and was published October 19th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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