Monday, September 14, 2009

Rules of Engagement II

If you were to ask most soldiers whether they believed their “side” would be capable of exercising restraint in war, the answer would probably be “yes” more often than not and regardless of evidence to the contrary. International law , specifically the “institutional” guidelines such as the Hague and Geneva Conventions, dictate the general restraints on violence that all participants in armed conflicts are obliged to observe. This requirement pertains when government forces, regardless of attempts to use claims of “self defense” or “military necessity,” try to justify attacks on noncombatants. It also pertains when insurgents come into villages to demand “protection money,” require “donated” labor by individuals without any pay, or require villagers to participate in military or quasi-military operations or be killed – the situation that bedevils Afghanistan today.

The growth of interactions between noncombatants, who either do not flee a battlefield or leave but then return shortly after the fighting subsides, and the force that won and holds the terrain, introduced the need to develop for the soldier expanded guidelines to direct this interaction – thus the phrase “Rules of Engagement” (ROEs).

The Pentagon’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, updated October 7, 2004, defines the phrase as “Directives issued by competent military authority that delineate the circumstances and limitations under which United States forces will initiate and/or continue combat engagement with other forces encountered.” This is the authority for the use of force – that is, the when, where, to what end, and against whom organized large-scale violence is employed.

Army training about ROEs envisions two general circumstances for using weapons: self-defense and to achieve mission completion. Whether ROEs are “permissive” (allowing more use of force) or “restrictive” (limited use of force) depends on the anticipated conditions extant in the mission – e.g., presence or absence of quantities of small arms and light weapons; existing, organized opposition groups, armed and unarmed; competency of local security forces, etc.

“Other forces encountered” is very broad. It encompasses guerrilla, police, para-military, military, and terrorists with or without national designations or insignia. Actions or indications of imminent intent to employ force to stop or impede U.S. forces are enough to consider any gathering as hostile. (Another avenue is for “competent authority” to declare a group as “hostile.”)

Some ROEs are included in unit “standing operational orders” (SOP) and form the basic structure from which adjustments are made to develop operational-specific ROEs issued to forces just prior to the start of an operation

ROEs provide for the use of deadly force to counter deadly force as an absolute right. They do not sanction deadly force to accomplish a mission. The use of force for the latter purpose is conditional on the grounds of necessity (a hostile act is imminent or has occurred) and proportionality (reasonable in intensity, duration, and magnitude). For example, destroying the house and livelihood of relatives of insurgent suicide car bombers is neither necessary nor proportional; it is vindictive.

This is the core disagreement between the Afghanistan central government, the Kunduz provincial leaders, the German commanders decision to request the air strike, and part of General McChrystal’s “rules of engagement" that require two independent sources verify that the proposed targets are Taliban fighters or active supporters.

ROEs must also remain flexible enough to respond to changes in the level of risk posed by operational conditions. ROEs should be drawn so as to discourage “mission creep” mindset that significantly and abruptly alters the rules under which troops operate. In fact, ROEs can serve as a brake on potential escalation in the level and extent of violence.

Consider Haiti in March 2004. With the country in chaos, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is “induced” be Washington to leave. American troops tell reporters the mission is to protect the U.S. embassy from rebel bands. But U.S. commanders in Haiti say their mission is to “stabilize the country” sufficiently for Haitian police to return to their posts, not disarm militants. Meanwhile the Pentagon says Marines would confiscate weapons.

So it sems in specific encounters, trying to disarm civilians actually could create confrontations. In others, prudence might dictate disarming potential belligerents as the best way to avoid the future use of deadly force. Then, with little notice, the mission expands again, moving more toward law enforcement and new ROEs that permit use of deadly force to protect Haitians from violence and – perhaps reflecting criticism from inaction by U.S. forces when Baghdad fell – to preclude rampant looting.

Conversely, “preventive war” doctrine developed by President George Bush could be considered a more permissive ROE national security policy statement than any in the past (e.g., no first use of nuclear weapons). It is also a policy that runs counter to the Charter of the United Nations, which the U.S. has signed, that recognizes only the right of “national self-defense” against an imminent threat of attack, not some possible threat that might or might not materialize in the indeterminate future. In some respects, the Bush doctrine has simply elevated to national policy the Vietnam War practice of declaring “free fire zones.” Yes, there were restrictive ROEs actually printed on cards handed to every soldier that directed:

-no bombing of villages without warning the inhabitants, even if the village was “known” to be communist;

-no attacking of villages without a warning even if U.S. troops had received fire from the village;

-evacuating all civilians before a village could be declared a free fire zone.

But in practice, over time the few restraints fell away; evacuations were incomplete; warnings delivered by leaflet missed their intended audience (or could not be read by the largely uneducated peasantry); ground fire by “Viet Cong” brought immediate and massive retaliation. And it was the perception that U.S. forces did not consider Vietnamese lives as of equal value to U.S. lives that lost Washington the battle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese and cost Vietnam another generation of its youth.

That has a 21st century echo in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Next: Rule of Engagement III


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