Sep 20

Back in June I wrote a post about how terrorists have rules of engagement. Though they come from a completely different culture, Islamic terrorists still have an extremist ideology that governs their ability to fight war.

In other words, they have rules of engagement.

As if to prove my point, in the Spring issue of The Journal of International and Security Affairs, Mary R. Habeck penned an article called the “Jihadist Laws of War”. Ms. Habeck doesn’t use the same terminology, but she describes the various fatwas that al Qaeda created to regulate its fight against America, detailing how al Qaeda views the issues of combatants versus non-combatants, prisoners of war, and the spoils of war. Not surprisingly, they all radically diverge from the Western Laws of War, but terrorist ROE does exist.

Of course, al Qaeda’s rules of engagement lack any restraint when it comes to Westerners or non-Sunni Muslims. Osama Bin Laden and his followers “established that citizens of the United States were combatants” regardless of whether they wield weapons or not. Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi would later twist rulings on combatants versus non-combatants “to declare all Shi’a--men, women and children--worthy of death.”

All of which I find interesting because al Qaeda is concerned with perceived legitimacy from the larger Islamic world. They feel the need to justify their actions in an Islamic context. Even though they twist Islamic law to endorse the murder of innocents, they desire religious approval--probably because deep down al Qaeda knows they are flying in the face of accepted Islamic law.

Mary Habeck makes this point very well, that terrorist (or takfiri or extremist) ideology does not meet the standards imposed by mainstream Islam. She admits that “salafi jihadis number...a tiny minority within the Muslim-majority world.” She also notes that Osama bin Laden specifically “uses violence to undo the interpretations of modern Islam.”  In sum, al Qaeda has rejected “both international legal norms and modern Islamic law.” If all US decision-makers mentioned this discrepancy more--and supposed “Ground Zero Mosques” less--we might actually have a shot at stopping extremists.

Mary Habeck’s article provides amazing insight on how al Qaeda views this conflict, a view many more US diplomats, intelligence officials and military officers need. It also proves a point I have had about ROE for years: insurgents and terrorists have rules of engagement, they just don’t look like ours.

But they have rules of engagement.

Sep 13

(Real quick: technical issues stopped this post from going up last Thursday. We'll be back on schedule this week.

Two weeks ago, I looked back at some of my earlier posts on the Rules of Engagement. One post described techniques US Soldiers use(d) to skirt the RoE in Iraq. Today I describe a technique used in Afghanistan.)

In Afghanistan, the Rules of Engagement are simple: soldiers can only shoot at targets they can see, targets that are directly threatening their lives. Putting it simply, this sucks. Ask any Afghan combat veteran. In that rugged countryside determining the exact location of the enemy, or even seeing him, verges on impossible.

Soldiers presented with tough ROE, and tough fighting conditions, often find work-arounds. In Afghanistan, they developed “observer training.”

“Observer training” means someone--the Forward Observer, the Platoon Leader or even just Soldiers--calls a fire mission, then the artillery or mortars fire that mission. If you are off target, you correct until the rounds go right where you need them to go. It is a vital skill for Soldiers, and has been since World War I.

In Afghanistan, many units realized if they called up a mission as “observer training” they could fire at suspected enemy locations. Now, these areas had to be empty of civilians, or at least not populated areas, but they could have rounds fired into them.
   
Here’s an example of abusing “observer training.” Armies have been intercepting radio signals since World War I. And shortly after they started intercepting them, they learned to find the direction they were broadcast from. The US Army can figure out the location of insurgent radios; many times, we can come close to pinpointing the locations of insurgent command and control (C2) cells.

Yet, that isn’t, in most cases, positive identification. Especially, if they are far out of range from the actual battle, all we know is a location is broadcasting. If a battle is going, and the right code words are being used, then we are close to a positive identification. Unfortunately, we still aren’t there, and that is why units conduct “observer training.” Using hunches and suspicions, and labeling their actions “observer training,” units can get away with firing at the enemy (or what they suspect is the enemy).

But all of this misses the most important point about using "observer training" to fire on suspected enemy positions: it does not work. Firing at unknown locations in the hopes of killing enemy based on scant intelligence does not work. In Afghanistan, our Army frequently protects itself with firepower, even though this makes us weak in the long run.

Sep 02

When General McChrystal took command of all international troops in Afghanistan last June, the rules of engagement became the hot new topic for politicos debating our policies in Afghanistan. Since General Petraeus replaced him, the number of pundits opining about policies “tying our Soldiers hands behind their backs” has only increased; Congress is contemplating legislation on this issue.

As a huge fan of both population-centric counter-insurgency and restrictive/tight Rules of Engagement, I have issues with these criticisms, which can be seen in some of my earliest posts at On Violence.

- In “Arcs of Fire”, I describe how our weapons are designed to saturate an area with lead and explosives, not the ideal weapon for a precision counter-insurgent.

- In “Dropped Weapons, Dropped Opportunities”, I talk about a technique common during the Iraq war to avoid prosecution for possible war crime violation.

- In “Why Overwhelming Firepower Backfires”, I take a common military tenet--overwhelming firepower leads to victory--and show that, in a counter-insurgency, it really doesn’t.

These early posts weren’t just about the rules of engagement; in many ways, they were more about good counter-insurgency. The rules are the same either way though, the principle behind them.

Particularly, my post on “dropped weapons” still strikes home. Even with great policies, Soldiers will try to figure out ways to game the system. Unless the know the principles behind the policy, the why behind their actions (which at times put them in very dangerous situations) they won’t do the right thing. Next week, I am going to talk about a tactic I saw in Afghanistan that skirts the rules of engagement.

Jul 14

On Monday, I described an ethical dilemma that supposedly shows how America’s extra-restrictive rules of engagement endanger our troops. Today I am going to debunk that story. (Click here to re-read it.) This hypothetical doesn’t prove that rules of engagement (ROE)--even really restrictive rules of engagement--are immoral or ineffective.

Monday’s story obscures the most important part of the story: the facts. The narrator barely describes the woman in question. Was she hysterical or calm? Was she screaming or quiet? Did she try to communicate to anyone in the platoon? She might seem like a spotter, but if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it is that our troops lack cultural awareness. They are even worse at trying to divine the intentions of locals who don’t speak English.

Yet the story was told to me with a certainty that is impossible to find through the fog of war.

Other facts are questionable as well. Where is the sniper exactly? If his fire is so accurate, why aren’t there more Marines casualties? Did the Marines have a time crunch? Was this a single operation or a larger battalion-sized mission? The point is we don’t know. And if we don’t know all the facts, the we have to question our conclusions.

To really go meta with this analysis, though, I need to explain why the facts are obscured. To do so, I am going to borrow from Eric C’s tool kit, and use literary criticism. Basically, we have a unreliable narrator, with a clear agenda: proving that ROE gets Soldiers killed. The best way to do this is to limit the options of the Marines to either kill, or be killed.

Like the last ethical dilemma I criticized, the Marines have more than two options. In fact, they have dozens. A Marine platoon has several different weapon systems to employ against a sniper, from machine guns to rifles to A-10 warthogs. They also have access to higher headquarters, and the additional resources they bring to the fight. The Marines could have maneuvered around the building or held their position until nightfall. They could have tried the back door. They could have waited until someone could spot the sniper. They could have tried to detain the woman, or at the very least, they could have tried to communicate with the woman.

But the narrator who wants to prove how bad ROE is will never give you ten options, he will make it a dilemma. This or that. Violate ROE, or be killed.

And this is a false dichotomy.

Jul 12

During Lone Survivor Week, I argued that Marcus Luttrell’s memoir is really just a 300 page ethical dilemma. And that I hate dilemmas, especially those that try to prove a political point.

In Luttrell’s case, the political agenda is our rules of engagement, following a long line of conservative commentators who make up hypotheticals to show the “stupidity” of our rules of engagement. Way back during my infantry training at Fort Benning, we discussed rules of engagement, and I heard an ethical dilemma designed to prove why they are wrong. Today, I am going to simply tell the story as it was told to me. On Wednesday, I will show why it is total malarkey.

The scene: downtown Baghdad. The time: before 2006. A Marine platoon is pinned down by a sniper and they can’t locate his firing position. Fire rains down on their positions when suddenly, from the front of the building, a woman emerges.

She goes outside, looks at all the Marines on the street, and goes back inside. The sniper fire instantly gets more accurate.

The woman comes out again. And again. Each time she leaves the building, the sniper fire closes in on the Marine platoon.

The Marines are trapped in an ethical dilemma, the speaker told me. They could shoot the woman, but they would be violating the rules of engagement because she didn't have a weapon. Or they could try to assault the building, but then risk massive casualties. The dilemma: shoot the woman and violate ROE, or let your own men get killed. The key? The men on the ground knew, for sure, that she was spotting for the enemy sniper.

Is this an ethical dilemma? Does it show how “stupid” restrictive rules of engagement are? Does this cause unnecessary risk to our Soldiers and Marines? I’ll provide my answer (No) on Wednesday.

Jul 06

Two weeks ago, I took apart Marcus Luttrell's Lone Survivor for claiming that insurgents don’t have rules of engagement (ROE). Insurgents have rules of engagement; they just don’t follow the Geneva Conventions. What Luttrell--and other critics of the ROE--really mean is that insurgents don’t have our rules of engagement, a statement that should shock no one.

Why don't insurgents have our ROE? A few reasons...

First, an insurgent leader can't control his fighters like an industrial military, and thus can't enforce their ROE with the discipline of the West. While a US Soldier could face court martial for disobeying ROE, an insurgent leader must use influence, intimidation and violence to control his men. Insurgent ROE reflects the reality of their situation, and is much more flexible.

Insurgent leaders don't write down their rules of engagement because they don't have the ability to distribute it. It's not like insurgents have the vast bureaucracies the Western armies maintain do. They have to use shuras or messengers, or even video tapes made in the hills of Pakistan. The point is they can't distribute an email or memo through a super-bureaucracy like the US. This is why their ROE will never be as strict or as documented as ours.

Second, insurgents also have a fundamentally different viewpoint of counter-insurgency/insurgency warfare than the Western armies. An insurgent is never on safe ground. He lives off the people, so for him the population is an active participant in the war. They also have drastically better intelligence, so they know who is really fighting in the insurgency and who isn't. Oh, and we wear uniforms.

But one reason above all explains why insurgent ROE doesn't look like American or Western ROE: an insurgent army doesn’t have the capabilities or firepower of a Western military.

Take this exchange from Ben M’Hidi in Battle for Algiers. When asked, “Isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs, which have taken so many innocent lives?” Ben M’hidi responds, “Isn’t it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more? Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.”

I’m not advocating for insurgents. Just War Theory, on which rules of engagement are based, is the reason I joined the military. It explains why good Armies need to exist. I hate the insurgent's rules of engagement because it doesn't limit civilian casualties.

But none of this shocks me. Their tactics and weapons don’t look familiar either, so why would their ROE?

Jun 21

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

“Our enemy was brutal, implacable, with no discernible concern about time or life.”

Marcus Luttrell, Patrick Robinson, Lone Survivor

Critics of the rules of engagement (ROE) love to point out that our enemy doesn't have rules of engagement. Whenever I debate this point, or read an Op-Ed on the subject, this inevitably comes up. Marcus Luttrell, our country's loudest and most vitriolic critic of the rules of engagement, describes the sentiment perfectly. (Yep, we are continuing to pile on to Luttrell. Unfortunately for him, his book contains almost every misnomer about ROE that exists, we almost have to use him as an example. It is also still inspiring debate over ROE.)

Take the above quote. Luttrell describes an enemy with no regard for life, rampaging through villages killing everything in their path.

Except in real life that never happens, because insurgents have rules of engagement too.

They don't follow the Geneva Conventions, insurgent ROE isn't written down, and insurgent leaders in Afghanistan do not have the same control over their fighters that American Generals have over their Soldiers. But they still have rules of engagement. At it's best, Marcus Luttrell's statement--like those of other ROE critics--confuses the rules of engagement with the Geneva Conventions; at its worst, it shows the type of thinking that hamstrings our military when it tries to conduct counter-insurgency.

Luttrell doesn’t understand the concept of rules of engagement. Rules of engagement are simply guidelines that authorize force--for armies, police forces, militias, criminal groups, gangs, or insurgents. Rules of engagement have existed since the dawn of time, even when they were incredibly lax, and even when they weren't written down.

Imagine Genghis Khan charging across Asia. A village wants to avoid the impending rape and pillage, so it bribes Khan to ignore their village by swearing loyalty, sending him a 100 soldiers, and as much gold as they can muster. Now if one of Genghis Khan’s lieutenants ransacked the town, he would have hell to pay. Genghis Khan’s unspoken rules of engagement were essentially: don’t mess with anyone I say not to.

Insurgents operate the same way. In Afghanistan many of the tribal leaders are all but immune to the Taliban. If insurgent groups didn’t win the support of local elders, (i.e. if they killed every Afghan civilian they came across), then their ability to operate in rural areas would evaporate.

Lone Survivor actually describes this scenario. Even though Marcus Luttrell claims that Ahmad Wali’s army of 200 Taliban fighters had surrounded the village sheltering him, the Taliban couldn't grab him. The insurgent leader knew that violating the Pashtun-Wali code would disrespect the village elders, and dry up his support in the Korengal.

In effect, the insurgents in Lone Survivor follow strict rules of engagement. Now their code of ROE isn't based on the Geneva Conventions, the Laws of Armed Conflict, or any other Western ethical system. Some of their tactics are governed by extremist Islamic theology (Salafist Jihadism in most cases), but in most cases insurgents follow rules of engagement that offer the best chance at self-preservation. No matter what basis, they always have rules of engagement.

The key word in Luttrell's condemnation is the word "discernible." They have rules of engagement, he just doesn't understand them.

May 31

Reader Joel forwarded me this article by C.J. Chivers in the NY Times. In short, a pit viper bit an Afghan boy on the face in Helmand province. The boy’s father brought him to the nearest Marine COP hoping the US could save his life. After fighting with higher headquarters, a helicopter picked up the boy and moved him to Kandahar, where it looks like he will survive.

Joel then asked this question: “To what extent does this actually, ‘win hearts and minds?’ Can anyone confirm whether or not the village this boy is from has become more accepting of US forces?”

Counter-insurgency is a war of inches and degrees. This individual incident won't win the war, the survival of this one boy will only change how his father feels about the US. Then again, maybe it won’t. It probably won't even affect his entire village. The bigger question is whether the policy of evacuating seriously wounded Afghans will eventually win over the population.

Because in the short term the effects of one single mission are hard to identify. I wrote about this when I described two Medical Civil Action Patrols (MEDCAP) my company conducted in Konar province. One succeeded wildly; the other failed miserably. Trying to figure out why was a next to impossible task. Again, victories in counter-insurgency show up over time, not single moments. It's like some sort of militaristic Chinese proverb: to fell the counter-insurgency tree, one must use many swings. By swings we mean MEDCAPs.

This isn't to say we have no way of knowing if we are winning. Our Human Intelligence Collection Teams can determine the “atmospherics” of local populations through polling. Most maneuver commanders tend not to employ them in this capacity, instead they try to target the bad guys. Modern polling can accomplish wonders. Determining if villages love us or hate us isn't as hard as we make it out to be.

Even though the Army screws up metrics all the time, there are ways of measuring progress. Having the level of violence plummet in Iraq showed progress. Having elections in Iraq showed progress. Training more Afghan police will show progress. Measuring success is possible--even seeing how many hearts and minds we have won--if we use the right metrics.

The core of Joel's question is whether we can win Afghan's hearts. Frankly, I don't see how this action couldn't help but convince one father, and possible mother, to support the US. Do drowning victims hate life guards? Do students hate organizations that gave them scholarships? Do cancer survivors hate their doctors?

The answer is no. Saving a boy's life will buy the US at least some goodwill. No one hates the person who saved their life, whereas denying the ability to save a life will almost certainly engender hatred. They see our money, wealth and health care, the natural reaction is to be upset if we don't share it. This goes for curing someone's club foot, or saving a little girl's eye sight. In the long term, building a sustainable Afghan medical capacity will bring us generations of good will; in the mean time, we should do what we can.

One MEDEDVAC won't win the war in Afghanistan, but thousands might. Some Afghans might still hate Americans despite billions in aid, but in the long term I believe they will come around.