Collateral Civilians and ROE
Initial reports from Afghani officials who went to the attack site put the toll as high as 100. No one from the coalition compound even ventured outside their defenses until well past daylight. At the national level, coalition investigators likewise were inexplicably delayed in flying to Kunduz and then were warned not to land at the attack site. Regardless of the number killed, what was already clear was the absence of any affiliation with the Taliban of the majority who lived near the river crossing. They were local villagers and farmers rousted from sleep by the Taliban who needed raw “muscle” to push two captured coalition fuel trucks free of a muddy ford in which the heavy tankers had bogged down.
What follows is a two part, rough analysis of the situation in Afghanistan and how the coalition commander is writing the rules of engagement (ROE) that troops are to follow in their interactions with noncombatants.
Life in Kunduz had always been hard and unchanging. Warfare between ethnic Tajik and Uzbek militias was common and would flare over control of territory, trade routes and smuggling. That changed in 2001 when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and installed a western-backed government led by Hamid Karzai. The 29 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, along with 13 other countries, then agreed to help rebuild Afghanistan.
Initially, while remnants of the Taliban were on the run, physical security for contractors working on major projects was not a widespread concern. In Kunduz, the German army employed radar and television surveillance of key terrain and transportation routes and ran patrols to demonstrate a security “presence” in the province. That balance began to unravel in 2007 as the Taliban expanded their operations from their traditional stronghold in Kandahar and the south into the north and west – that is, into Kunduz province where 200 German troops were stationed.
Hijacking the fuel tankers was an audacious move by the Taliban insurgents. According to local media representatives, the German commander was concerned that the Taliban might explode one or both tankers near Afghan government buildings and security personnel, coalition forces, or civilian contractors. A “by chance” radar scan of the mired tankers was forwarded to the German headquarters. Activity at the river site could be followed in real time but the imagery could not verify the number of people at the river site or how many were armed. Separately, a local “informant” working for the German contingent reported as many as 100 men were at the river and insisted that all those at the river crossing were Taliban or supported the insurgents. Finally, the German commander called in U.S. F-15s to bomb the trucks. Survivors described a huge fireball and total destruction.
The high death toll among noncombatants is but the latest dispute among the Afghan government, NATO, and the German government about who draws up the rules governing the use of deadly force in military operations involving noncombatants. Because the U.S. force commander is also the coalition commander and the bulk of combat forces are Americans, the Pentagon approves the rules governing relationships between civilians and coalition soldiers.
The “Rules of Engagement” (ROE) are part of a commander’s decision matrix that sets restraints on the context of actions – other than self-defense – that could cause or preclude serious injury or death on a battlefield. ROEs are the core of profession military training as they render a soldier’s automatic response to the actions of combatant and noncombatants encountered during operations. At the base of such training is the assumption that human behavior in violent contexts – including armed conflict of all types – can be consistently restrained and directed so that death and destruction are minimized.