A Different Perspective On Rules Of Engagement And McChrystal?

BY Herschel Smith
11 years, 10 months ago

Courtesy of Andrew Exum:

From that day forward, I watched as the war slowly fell apart at the hands of our Army’s middle management — typified by that battalion commander. Case and point, GEN McChrystal’s tenure in Afghanistan. To me, the most compelling part of the Rolling Stone article is the scene where a sergeant down range writes an email to McChrystal stating he believes GEN McChrystal doesn’t get the war and has ordered policies that are killing men on the front lines. GEN McChrystal gets on the next flight to this sergeant’s FOB and goes on patrol with the sergeant’s unit. Afterwards, he holds an After Action Review with the sergeant and his men in the outpost’s makeshift chowhall. During the AAR he notices a laminated list posted on the chowhall’s wall that reads something like “Rules of Engagement As Ordered By COMISAF.” Upon reading the list, McChrystal says aloud “these aren’t my rules.” And thus my point, somewhere between GEN McChrystal issuing orders and the point at which these front line soldiers received them, the Army’s middle management bureaucracy altered them to be significantly risk adverse (sic).

This is a first hand account, anecdotal, but I presume reliable, concerning a surprise for General McChrystal concerning how his rules were applied.  So does this account rehabilitate McChrystal’s image (which seems to be its point)?

I will grant the proposition that staff and field grade officers (at least some of them) were risk adverse (sic – averse).  I will grant the proposition that there were modifications, amendments, clarifications, additional stipulations, and so on and so forth, in the unit-level ROE as compared to the theater-specific ROE, just as there is between the standing ROE of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the theater-specific ROE.

What I refuse to grant is that any of this “altered them to be significantly risk adverse.”  McChrystal’s ROE were risk averse to begin with, and a recapitulation of the rules of engagement will show that missions had to end because there was a “chance” that an illumination round would fall on a domicile.  When the Marines went into Marjah, General Rodriguez attempted to micromanage an entire Marine Air-Ground Task Force like they were children.  “Less than six hours before Marines commenced a major helicopter-borne assault in the town of Marja in February, Rodriguez’s headquarters issued an order requiring that his operations center clear any airstrike that was on a housing compound in the area but not sought in self-defense.”  Listen to that again.  Rodriguez’s operation center had to approve offensive air strikes.  Seriously.  You simply can’t make this stuff up.

The problems came from the top.

“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 can compute the probability that a falling satellite will land on McChrystal’s head, and it is non-zero.  Thus, there is a “chance” of that happening.  This guidance is stupid, issued by stupid men, applied in a stupid campaign if that’s the way it is going to be conducted.  Are the staff and field grade officers (and their JAGs) responsible for the ROE?  Yes.  Should the men at Joyce (who made the decision to deny air support to the Marines as Ganjgal) have spent time in Leavenworth?  Yes.

Does any of this obviate the responsibility McChrystal had for the ROE?  No, not one bit.  This isn’t an either-or proposition, it is both-and.  And frankly, we don’t seem to have learned our lessons.

The number of British soldiers being shot dead in Afghanistan is spiralling as new tactics ban them from shooting at the Taliban until they are fired at themselves.

Eleven have been killed by enemy gunfire in Helmand in the past three months compared with two in the same period during 2011.

Soldiers blame efforts to slash the number of civilian casualties ordered by the US general in command of Coalition forces.

The Ministry of Defence yesterday denied the rules of engagement for British troops had changed.

But a spokesman for Coalition forces said British soldiers were told to change procedures after a tactical review.

Troops yesterday said they are now more vulnerable at road-junction checkpoints or while patrolling Taliban heartlands.

They say that previously they could shoot first but are now allowed only to return fire.

One corporal said: “When I arrived in Helmand, my officers said our tactics were going to change. They said if I saw somebody carrying a rifle or a rocket launcher, I shouldn’t fire at him. Only if he shot at me or a member of my patrol, and I could see a muzzle flash, could I use my weapon.

“I was shocked and so were my mates. We are trained to close in and kill the enemy, not to let him stroll on, watch us and let him choose the best time to ambush us.

Absurd.  Even if you argue that the head of a family ought to be allowed to carry a personal defense weapon, an RPG doesn’t fit that category.  We still have good men deployed in Afghanistan, and we are letting the enemy “choose the best time to ambush us.”

How utterly sad and despicable.

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  1. On July 17, 2012 at 10:13 pm, jj said:

    The crappy part is, it’s been going on for years……

  2. On July 18, 2012 at 2:58 pm, MarineOfficer said:

    I am not comfortable with the term “risk averse” for battalion commanders. I have never been to Afghanistan, but the battalion commanders I deployed to Iraq with in 1/7, 1/3, and 2/2 where all hard charging individuals who put their Marines ahead of personal advancement and comfort.

    Risk averse implies that the commander would rather tighten the rules to prevent a kinetic incident that might reflect badly on him, but in doing so risks the lives of the troops. As Michael Yon has pointed out, the battalion commander is the “coach on the sideline,” the man with command authority over a whole area of operations who can still feel the battle space and give you an accurate account of what’s happening.

    Are there battalion commanders who are poor leaders of men who should never hold those positions? Absolutely, the army and Marine Corps are large organizations who select commanders through board processes that are riddled with politics, favoritism, and other problems. But people that stick around this gun club tend to do so for love of others who wear the same funny looking outfits.

    I think this is how we close the loop on McChrystal. He went to that FOB, went on patrol, came back, and sees the poster. Does he return to Kabul, read the riot act to his staff, and make sure that his guidance is properly enforced? No. The Rolling Stone article (and following book) make clear that the staff is obsessed with power points, hour long briefings and meetings, and personality worship. Assuming things are half as bad as the author makes them out, it is still not a place that could take dynamic action to correct what potentially where lethal misstatements. McChrystal was not the leader for the war. The men around him had no place being in the positions of power they were in.

    ROE issued by the theater commander (General Mathis in this case) are broad guidance, and they never abrogate the right to self defense. If there continue to be officers and leaders in the field who do not understand that, then the problem has become institutional, the discussion of Afghanistan academic (It is, I understand that), and we should turn our attention to undoing the damage that a decade of poorly conceived and executed war has done to our nations armed forces.

  3. On July 18, 2012 at 3:26 pm, Herschel Smith said:


    Your response is interesting, and I don’t per se disagree with any of it. I want to say, though, that it is never, EVER acceptable to use a contact e-mail:


    This is insulting to the webmaster, i.e., me. I maintain strict security over contact information, and many active duty members of the military have entrusted their names and contact information to me. It’s one way to know that the comments aren’t spam. Thus far, between Spam Karma and me, we have had to spam almost 50,000 comments. It’s stunning, actually, what happens when you give folks a forum. Also, given your IP address, I am somewhat skeptical that you’re active duty (I know of no base or other Marine Corps facility where you are).

    But I will give you the benefit of the doubt. As to your comment, I guess I would go the additional steps to say that it has to do with more than just self defense. Of course there is the inherent right to self defense. There couldn’t NOT be that right, regardless of the specific ROE.

    The point is that offensive actions aren’t taken under certain ROE, and in the case of McChrystal’s rules, they sound more like OSHA requirements in American industry than ROE designed for combat. As to whatever rules the British are currently operating under, to refuse to allow them to shoot (offensively) at men carryng RPGs means that it is past time to come home and stay until we do what you recommend in the final sentence of your comment.

    Finally, the ROE don’t consider the doctrine of “jus in bello” when they don’t allow us to kill men carryng RPGs. It is legitimate to kill these actors regardless of whether it is in self defense. Self defense is irrelevant to the situation.

  4. On July 20, 2012 at 5:39 pm, MarineOfficer said:


    While I apologize that you find my (admittedly fake) address offensive, I will continue to use it for my own personal safety/security reasons. I will also say that I find it odd that a man of your technical ability, resources, and knowledge of the corps did not do a bit of cross-referencing, as your knowledge of my IP, with looking through MARADMINS would allow you narrow down who I am to 1 of about 8 officers stationed in this particular county over the last couple of years.

    I do not mean to turn this into a discussion about the Marine Corps, but since there could be other people, and this topic could come up again, allow me a brief discourse. There are the big places you find Marines (The DC-Quantico area, Southern California, the Carolina coast, 29 Palms, Hawaii, Japan), the small ones (Norfolk, VA area, Kingsbay, Georgia, Albany, Georgia, Jacksonville, Florida, Barstow, California, Yuma, Arizona, Beaufort, SC and several other remote outposts where MarDets are part of schools, major commands, etc.

    Then we have the 6 Marine Corps Recruiting Districts (although the headquarters of 2 are aboard the Depots), and their subordinate 48 Recruiting Stations, spread across the nation, each of which has around 12-15 Substations (your own Charlotte area features 3, Gastonia, Charlotte, and Monroe). Furthermore, the RS’s contain Officer Selection Stations. There are Marine Officers serving in Military Entrance Processing Stations as CO’s, XO’s, and OPSO’s (again, Charlotte has one of these, although I do not believe a Marine currently in a senior staff billet). Then we have active duty Marines on I&I duty in the reserves, spread across most of this nation, with Charlotte, Greenville, Charleston, and Columbia all checking in. When you say “no base or other Marine Corps facility where you are,” I think you do the Marines of the local RS, reserve unit, and joint schools a disservice.

    Last but not least in the larger discussion regarding “where Marines are” are people like myself, on independent duty, assigned usually through a MARADMIN after being selected for one program or another, be it educational, fellowship, joint or combined assignment. I am not offended by you “questioning” my status as an Active Duty Marine Officer, after all that’s why I carry my CAC with me.

    To return to the topic that brought about my initial post, and the issue of RPG’s. I would turn the question around the other way. In the United States, one can in most situations more then adequately defend one’s home with an AR-15 style weapon, such as the one you’ve frequently discussed on this website. I would argue that the same is not true in Afghanistan. An RPG may there be an appropriate weapon, especially considering that more and more we are openly saying that we will do nothing to help certain communities (the New Yorker article you linked to made this perfectly clear).

    That does not mean that every instance of RPG carrying becomes some kind of protected act. It does mean that nuance is required. I think that the concept of “jus in bello” is being misapplied in your analysis, as it is meant more to set a “ceiling” of what the nation can authorize its military to do. That does not mean that the ground force commander has to take all of that power. He can limit it, “accept risk” on the battlefield if he sees some other benefit by doing so.

    Blanket rules, generally, are bad ideas. It is clear that there is a lack of trust in NCO level leadership in the unit described. It is also clear that the troops are frustrated. None of those are good signs. Your commenters on here frequently opine “just get out of Afghanistan if we are not going to do it right,” and its moments like this that such a sentiment may be appropriate. You fan this flame when you say “offensive actions” are not taken under such ROE. I would describe the night raids that take place every night for the past couple of years as offensive actions.

    I would describe Marjah as an offensive action, even if not with the full weight and force it may have had. Patrolling can be an offensive or defensive action. Cordon & knocks and cordon & sweeps are still being conducted in Afghanistan. Those are offensive actions.

    I closing I would like to add this. I tremendously enjoy your website and analysis, and I have frequently shared it with colleagues, and on several occasions used it as a jumping off point for training. So let me say thank you for what I do consider a tremendous service you do. Let me also add that it is always dangerous to think that one has all the answers. I am not arguing that senior command decisions made in Afghanistan are correct. It is alway easy to say that senior commanders are wrong. I would however say that shades of gray are a more appropriate medium for such observations then black and white.

  5. On July 21, 2012 at 1:44 pm, Barb said:

    The “right to defend themselves.” Really? IS THAT ALL OUR TROOPS ARE ALLOWED TO DO IN AFGHANISTAN? Watch the enemy plants bombs and let them go, watch them walk away so they can plan an ambush later?

    Our troops are trained WARRIORS – not PEACEKEEPERS or POLICE. If that’s what these PC bureaucrats want (police), then send in the PeaceCorps and police officers and bring our troops home now!

    Not one more drop of blood should be wasted in this futile and fantasy COIN effort. The Afghan people are incapable of running their own country. We are wasting our blood and treasure!

    Please join our efforts to stop this madness of strategy! http://www.facebook.com/RoE.USMilitary?ref=ts

  6. On July 21, 2012 at 1:47 pm, Thomas said:

    This is nothing but deadly and stupid political correctness to its highest levels.

  7. On July 21, 2012 at 2:53 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Marine Officer,

    First of all, let me give you a brief list of things that are impossible. First, it is impossible to know everything about every one of my commenters. Yes, I can spend a seemingly infinite amount of time learning everything about them and trying to ascertain the legitimacy of their remarks. But this isn’t my job. It is the job of my commenters to help me with that effort.

    While I have tried to monetize my blog, I have failed at that effort. I’m not even sure that I would want to do this full time. I have a day job, and I earn a living doing that just as do you. Again, your lack of trust in my as the editor in chief is unfortunate. I in the possession of hundreds of names and legitimate military domain e-mail addresses. I know that the contact page is broken. But one way to assist me in determining the legitimacy of comments is to supply e-mails in the comments block. No one sees them except me.

    Second, it simply isn’t possible to post everything I know about every subject in every post. I have my readers for an average of about 2.5 minutes. On the long ones for the really interested readers I have them maybe 4 minutes. That’s the nature of this – it cannot be changed, so one must learn to live with it and adapt to it.

    Now on from things that are impossible to the rest of my remarks. The above means that I am fully aware of all of the caveats, nuances, qualifiers, exceptions, and everything else associated with kinetic operations and ROE. I understand that there is a warp and woof to a campaign. When 2/6 went into Fallujah in 2006, they didn’t start with the Lt. Col. present at city council meetings. They started with full on, hard core, combat operations, with attendant ROE. The nature of the campaign shifted over time to satellite patrols, policing, etc. My son not only shot many men, he sat in homes and had dinner and talked with heads of families. Forget the strategic corporal. He was a strategic Lance Corporal. He killed men boating across the Euphrates River at the start of the ops, and was coupled with IP two Marines to a precinct later in the campaign. There is no need to explain to me how there is nuance.

    I would add that another good example of kinetic ops was the 24th MEU in Garmsir in 2008. I cover it extensively on my blog if you hunt for the right time frame. Some 400 fighters were killed, with robust ROE. They transitioned to other things by the end of the effort, only to turn over to the Brits who wanted to do things differently, and then Garmsir was lost.

    I cannot fathom a situation in which it is acceptable for men of military age to walk around carrying RPGs. This seems like a losing example, and I’m surprised that you chose it to discuss the issue of “nuance.”

    Turning to an example of kinetic ops and robust ROE being night raids, you can color me completely unimpressed. Turning loose Rangers and SEALs to raid homes in the middle of the night, only to be gone the next morning, sending them to prison, and then turning them loose 96 hours later, is an example of bad practice – I don’t care how you cut it up.



    As for what I think of prisons in counterinsurgency, see:


    Finally, I must return to the issue of trust. I note that you claim that you are a Marine Corps officer. I have interacted with all branches of the military since I have been doing this. The most open organization, by far, is the Army. The most closed organization by far is the USMC. There is no comparison.

    Even for officers for whom I have great respect:


    I will note that during writing of this post, I was informed that “this picture couldn’t possibly be of the 2/6. They aren’t wearing the right uniforms in the right way.” To which I responded, “Sir, this is 2/6, Golf Company, Third Platoon, and the one being carried in the middle is my son. The picture was taken by a ringer, and the one on the left (I gave his name) is carrying my son’s SAW.”

    My son informed me that even in the middle of Fallujah there were cameras with constant feed to the Pentagon. One main worry was what the uniforms looked like. If this seems silly to you, it’s because it is.

    When 2/6 deployed to Fallujah in 2007, many of the Marines took with them boots purchased at TAGs right down the street from Camp Lejeune. Made by Bates (I have a pair) they were lighter and better for the dust of Fallujah than the MC issued boots. But in order to comply with MARADMINs they threw them away and had to be issued MC boots while in Fallujah.

    I blogged about training at one point, commenting that my son had had to go without a meal one night and swim the river in body armor (to be clear, I don’t know if this included SAPI plates). This post got my son in so much trouble that he had to visit NCOs and officers for a day.

    My reaction to this is the MC had damn well better teach him to go without meals (just as in boot camp and SOI), so that when he gets to Fallujah he is prepared to sit in an IP precinct and figure out what he is going to do for food. At times they sent their terp out for eggs in the local market. Good on him.

    My reaction was also that the MC had better damn well teach him to swim in body armor. What is he supposed to do when his up-armored vehicle rolls into the river while he is in it, if he hasn’t been trained to deal with it?

    In contrast, the MC reaction was to haze my son for telling me anything about it.

    If this sounds stupid, it’s because it is. No debates, no discussion. It is stupid. And the MC is a closed organization. I see it in just about every interaction I have with NCOs or officers (and it’s especially bad with officers). I cannot tell you the idiotic debates I have had with MC officers over the stupidest things, with the officers apparently simply toeing the MC line, not even believing their own propaganda.

    You should consider all of this in your lack of trust. Again, I am in the possession of hundreds of e-mails, not many of them MC. Most of them are Army or Navy (some Air Force). It isn’t that I want your e-mail address – I really don’t care. I’m just trying to make a point concerning things I have seen over the years and the nature of the MC.

    Oh, and back to an earlier point. I think that DA kinetics being reserved for Rangers, SEALs and MARSOC is a mistake. It will dumb down and stupefy the Corps (and Army). In fact, I think that the existence of MARSOC within SOCOM is a mistake, and that Recon should be deployed with and assigned to infantry Battalions. The separation of troops into SOF and GP forces is a mistake – one that we will live to regret.

  8. On July 21, 2012 at 3:12 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    One final thing. My last comment reads like a “flow of consciousness” comment. I was (and am) in a hurry.

    As to the original subject, I think that one thing you are leaving out is the vote of the people in policy. I think that it’s clear that the American public will not stand for long term, long duration population-centric COIN campaigns. In fact, as you are aware the MC view is more of do what it takes, come home, and if you need to deploy again in five years to do it again, then so be it.

    One consequence of the pop-centric COIN campaign we are running is that the powers-that-be, who believe in the applicability of Western psychology to the Afghan Muslim, want to construct a society that will never, ever again be a threat to us before leaving.

    This is a fool’s errand. The American public believes so, and they would be more willing to act with kinetics for a brief period of time and return to do it again if the need arises than to send the military as peace keeping officers while we pretend that a HVT program enacted by night raids by Rangers and SEALs will actually transform the society.

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You are currently reading "A Different Perspective On Rules Of Engagement And McChrystal?", entry #8780 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,General McChrystal,Rules of Engagement and was published July 16th, 2012 by Herschel Smith.

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