When you consider all of the pre-deployment preparations, training, re-training, and ramping up, my Afghan adventure spanned more than two years. Our ultimate destination changed 3 times and our actual mission changed more times than that. It was typical Big Army uncertainty with several hundred lives left flapping in the breeze of bureaucratic inefficiency. “Army stuff,” as a friend of mine used to say.
During the delays and changes of assignments, we attended several briefings on Rules of Engagement. Rules of engagement seems to be a hot-button issue lately, so I thought I would share some of my own experiences on the matter. Rules of engagement, as in the actual rules of engagement used in-country, are classified. Therefore, we will be unable to talk specifics in this article, just as our trainers were unable to talk in specific terms during our training. My intention is to talk more of the interpretation, misunderstanding, and dissemination of those rules.
Rules of engagement, or ROE, with all of their numerical designations, tabs, and glossy pages, are contained in a book that every command possesses. Typically found in the TOC, it is readily available for commanders and targeting professionals in the event a situation arises that requires researched guidance. There are essentially two versions of the ROE, one unclassified for public consumption and media dissemination, and the classified ROE that is used by our forces on the ground. The vague and non-specific ROE released to the public is generally the one that leads to so much debate in public forums. I always try to avoid getting involved in these types of discussions because the information those people are working from is a watered-down, unclassified version. It isn’t the “actual” ROE.
Many of our troops on the ground have very little knowledge of the actual ROE as well. Typically, commanders, XO’s, targeting personnel, JTACs, and your JAG personnel have the most in-depth knowledge of the ROE. Troops are taught the basics and are then updated as missions require in their pre-mission briefs. The fact of the matter is that there are so many particulars and details in the ROE guidance that nobody could possibly know them all. There is no way we could expect a PFC 11B to know every aspect of the ROE and implement it according to ISAF guidance. That responsibility falls on that PFC’s commander. Your typical troop also has no need to understand the ROE that doesn’t pertain to them.
This is dealt with, as it was during my tour, by training them on Escalation of Force procedures. This teaches them to deal with a direct threat immediately and without guidance. Simply put, if your life is in danger, act. If someone shoots at you, you should shoot back. Now, in Afghanistan there is a huge concern, mostly due to our “host’s” own requirements, for civilian casualties. Frankly, that should be a concern for everyone. But, it is drummed into everyone’s head by the media, by poorly worded guidance from commanders, and by verbiage found within the ROE itself. The result is a soldier on patrol who is constantly concerned about the issue and who may believe they can’t return fire if fired upon.
Those misconceptions do happen, no matter how much effort we put forth to be as clear as possible when giving ROE briefings. It is just like any other conversation. Things are said, then passed along, and small changes in wording occur. I was often surprised following a briefing to hear people walk out the door saying things to the effect of, “Great! So, if we can’t shoot back, why are we here?” No guidance of that kind was ever put out during a briefing. Those troops somehow misinterpreted the guidance, or heard what they wanted to hear. I can tell you from first-hand experience that I was never told by anyone during any ROE/EOF briefing that I could not defend myself, my unit, or civilians from harm. In fact, the inherent right to self-defense was stated in every briefing I attended, or gave. Most often, it was repeated multiple times. And yet, smoke-pit gossip would win every time and I would hear soldiers talking about how restrictive their ROE has become.
ROE has changed and does change pretty regularly. As the situation on the ground changes, as the political winds shift, and as new situations arise, the rules have to be modified. If there has been a tremendous number of civilian casualties as a result of the use of a specific weapon, often times the use of that weapon will be limited, or even eliminated. Sometimes it is permanent and sometimes it is temporary.
Recently there was quite a buzz over a letter from a UK soldier to his family in which he claimed the ROE prevented them from engaging insurgents who were planting IEDs in the roadway. If such guidance was put out, of course that is an outrage. That soldier was killed soon after writing that letter. Killed by an IED. Those circumstances warrant investigation and outrage. But, that incident occurred around the same time I was in-country. We were not given any such guidance and ROE did not prevent us from engaging such a threat. You may be restricted on the weapons package with which you can engage, but engaging an enemy in the commission of a hostile act is in no way restricted by ROE.
My suspicions, based on what I saw myself, is that lower level commanders have been altering the ROE beyond the original guidance. Each country and each unit has their own opinion on how best to deal with the threats within their AO. Commanders should have the ability to address their particular issues in creative and effective ways. But, sometimes that creativity is to the detriment of the unit.
During my tour, I attended an ROE conference of NATO countries in RC-North. Several countries were in attendance. My Commander and I were the only U.S. personnel in attendance. During that conference, with all of the participants trained and educated on the same ROE, opinions on their implementation were widely varied. Norway, for instance, seemed to default to a passive, defensive posture while Latvia seemed to be eager to utilize its mortar and air assets at any remote opportunity. It was clear to see that each country was emphasizing different intent within the ROE, even though they were all holding the same book.
So, it is easy for me to imagine a passive commander instructing his forces not to engage a target unless it met very restrictive criteria that he himself deemed appropriate. But, since the majority of engagements in Afghanistan are on a defensive basis, as in NATO and Coalition forces being attacked and responding, it would be unconscionable for a Commander to direct his troops to stand down. If those IEDs were being planted in heavily populated areas, and the command’s requested solution was a massive air-strike, yes, I can see how that might be denied by higher headquarters. But, there are far too many tools available to take denial of that particular request as a directive to unnecessarily endanger the force.
Again, as a first-hand account, we engaged a variety of targets during our tour. All of those engagements were within the confines of the ROE and our commander, as well as every other commander in Afghanistan, retains the right to self-defense for his unit, his coalition partners, and the facilities under his control. Yes, he has to be conscious of the risks involved to both his personnel and the civilian population. But, no ROE will tell him that he has to allow his men to die without a fight.
When bullets fly, people die. Sometimes they aren’t the right people. It happens. It has happened in every war since this Nation came into being. It will happen in the next war as well and the one after that. Wars happen where people live and they are often innocently caught between the two warring parties. It is unfortunate and tragic, but its simply the truth. The ROE, at least in part, is designed to minimize that eventuality, but it cannot, and will not, eliminate it.