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.


Brian said...


As New Zealand has just had its first soldier killed in action during the Afghanistan war one might be encouraged to ask “Would John Key knowing the rules of engagement our troops are confined under; now undertake to raise a re-appraisal of these rules seeing that they are hampering efforts to win this engagement against the Taleban”? Especially as these same rules do not apply in reverse, or what is more likely, ignored by the Taleban as another stupid concession to liberal elements in the West.

These self same “rules of engagement” where in effect during the Palestine problems just after World War 2 when British troops where responsible for maintaining law and order in the Mandate - what is now known as Israel. The then Labour Government in the U.K. virtually abandoned its troops when they came under fire from both Jewish & Arab terrorists, “with an “unwritten” shoot back only if shot at in reply policy”. A policy that pleased its left wing, and Peace Movements.

“Shades of the present situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan.”

This is a policy which works very well… provided ones opponents are bad shots!! Which as we well know they certainly are not?

Judging by the comments in today’s Sunday Star Times from two writers, we should leave Afghanistan as this is merely an American War, which like Vietnam, we should never have become involved in. These comments are probably the general opinion of a public so concerned with its internal problems (with the very obvious except of International Rugby) that anything happening beyond “God’s Own Climate Environmentally Friendly Country”; is deemed a problem devised by a capitalistic Western Alliance for their own advantage.

Failure in Afghanistan will be a prelude to a disaster in Pakistan, although here in New Zealand it is very doubtful whether there is any real interest in the advance of Terrorism; Islamic or otherwise. This situation is very similar to the very early 1930’s, with the exception that instead of Terrorists, there were “legitimate” Governments.

The prosecution of the war is flawed, once politicians outlawed the most successful means of winning that war, then it becomes a certainly whereby casualties will rise and rise. Another sad case for the History Book of political interference with a General in command.

Naturally politicians in the U.S.A. or Western Alliance will avoid the making such a decision, especially with the dawn of forthcoming elections, but fortunately for all of us here today, Harry S. Truman did not.


Anonymous said...

Afganistan is not war the Americans could ever win (as was the case in Vietnam). That's the reality whether they or we like it or not. Brian is right to mention the effects this will have on Pakistan, and the risk that it too may fall to the Taliban, but we have no place fighting the wars of others. It's not that we may not wish to do something, it's just that we can't be effective in changing the outcome - innocent people simply get killed.