Friday, August 6, 2010
Ron Smith: Rules of Engagement and the successful prosecution of War
As noted earlier in these commentaries, humanitarian restraint in war is governed in its specifics by the universally-agreed provisions of the Geneva Conventions and, most recently, by the statutes of the International Criminal Court (ICC), to which more than 100 states have now bound themselves. In modern practice, the obligations of combatants (and particularly the forces of state parties) are set out in detailed ‘Rules of Engagement’ (ROEs). Unlike the public provisions of humanitarian law (Geneva and the ICC), these rules of engagement are not public documents and therefore the content for any particular engagement can only be deduced from the public pronouncements of those who know.
There are also prudential considerations. Success in a particular conflict may be thought to depend on the attitudes of affected non-combatant parties and on ‘sentiment’ in the countries from which the regular forces come and in the wider world. The first of these is the so-called ‘hearts and minds’ problem. Here the received wisdom is that, in a counter-insurgency campaign, any perceived harm to civilians is likely to increase support for the insurgents and thus adversely affect likely success. The second effect (public sentiment in sending countries) is also substantially driven by perceptions of ‘innocent’ harming but it also has other roots (including fear of military casualties).
But the ‘hearts and minds’ effect is not the only factor which will determine the outcome in a conflict like that presently going on in Afghanistan. The ISAF forces there also need to be militarily efficient. No amount of being thought to be the good-guy is of any value if you lose all the battles and get your troops killed to no good purpose. There needs to be a balance between the efficient application of military force and a proper concern to avoid civilian casualties as far as possible. In the view of this writer, this balance has been lost.
Of course, the Obama administration has made the problem of maintaining Afghan public support much worse by the equivocal way it has dealt with its own military commitment; both in the dilatory way in which it responded to requests for more troops and in the extraordinarily ill-judged insistence on setting a date for withdrawal. This latter leaves both the present Afghan leadership, and the generality of the people with the stark question as to what they will do when the Taliban come back. Clearly, it would help if you hadn’t been to obviously supportive of the now departed infidels.
However, the major problem of recent years has been the way military operations have been conducted and, particularly, the excessive preoccupation with the avoidance of civilian casualties (or, indeed, causing any kind of offence). As I have observed in an earlier piece, when you are fighting an adversary who is operating from within the cover of civilian status, civilian casualties are absolutely inevitable and this would apply even if (what is not the case) that adversary is doing his best to prevent civilian harm. In fact, in Afghanistan, for reasons that are obvious, civilian harm that is apparently caused by ISAF forces is very much to the advantage of the Taliban.
In November 2009 the Washington Times published a summary of US Rules of Engagement, based on some persistent journalistic detective-work. They show a military force responding to a broader range of sensitivities than the direct harming of civilians:
“1. No night or surprise searches.
2. Villagers have to be warned prior to searches.
3. ANA or ANP must accompany US units on searches.
4. US soldiers may not fire at the enemy unless the enemy is preparing to fire first.
5. US forces cannot engage the enemy if civilians are present.
6. Only women can search women.
7. Troops can fire at an insurgent if they catch him placing an IED but not if insurgents
are walking away from an area where explosives have been laid.”
Two conclusions can be drawn from this: US forces, under these rules, are less likely to be successful in their military operations and more likely to suffer casualties. They are also very likely to be paralysed by uncertainties and fears of disciplinary action if they get it wrong. Indeed, the recent literature is full of examples of precisely this. Looking at these ROEs, we can hardly be surprised that the war in Afghanistan is not going well. It seems equally evident that it won’t go well until these operational straight-jackets are removed. Perhaps we need to go back to the basic ‘Geneva’ and ICC tests, where what is prohibited is ‘intentionally directing attacks against civilians (or civilian objects)’ and where harm of whatever kind to whomever, may, in principle, be justified by ‘military necessity’.
One of the lamentable characteristics of democratic politicians is their propensity to will the ends without willing the means. It applies to social programmes but it also particularly applies to the prosecution of wars. They may want to ‘win’ the war (for whatever reason) but they do not want to face the cost, both financial and human, and particularly they do not want to face the criticism. Political leaders also seem able to browbeat their military commanders to see things their way, so that, in the case of General McChrystal, a special forces commander with (by all accounts) an impressive record, is turned into an ineffectual equivocator.
There is some sign that the new commander in Afghanistan is rethinking present ROE settings, although he will still have to deal with the same range of sensitivities. We must all hope that this is so and that he will be able to impart a new momentum to military operations there. The alternative does not really bear thinking about.
at 9:03 AM