Interesting story on the fight in Helmand, Afghanistan in the most recent New York Times Magazine. There is lot that one could comment upon in the piece but I’ll just focus on one thing – the Rules of Engagement (ROE’s) for engaging suspected IED emplacers. Here is the section of the piece describing one encounter with IED placement:
A marine noticed two men digging with shovels near the road that connects the Shrine to the main base at the dam. He alerted Sergeant Granados, who magnified their images using a remote-controlled camera mounted atop a tower that relays infrared video to a monitor at its base. After watching the men excavate a hole, place an object inside and bury it, Granados radioed his superiors and requested permission to shoot them. The permission was denied. “They want to see components,” Granados complained. “They want to see wires, jugs. We saw something getting put into the ground. To them, that isn’t good enough.” The marines watched the men toss a handful of branches over their project, then flee quickly back to Chinah.
As one might guess, the failure to take out the suspected insurgents led to this:
I was drinking tea with Jalani when two trucks, loaded with farmworkers heading out to harvest the last of the year’s crop, came bumping down the road leading to the outpost. As they reached the place where the two men were seen digging in the night, a tremendous explosion echoed off the hills and the trucks vanished in a geyser of erupted earth. Thirteen passengers, including women and children, had been crammed into the trucks, but somehow none were killed or badly hurt. A few minutes later, carrying satchels and tools, the Afghans continued toward their fields on foot.
“Where are they going?” I asked Jalani.
“To work,” he said.
Clearly the outcome of this episode could have been a lot worse. It could have been Americans hit by the IED. The explosion could have caused the loss of innocent life or severe, lifelong injuries to these Afghans or others.
And it certainly raises the question of whether the ROE’s were/are way too restrictive even for a COIN fight in which counterinsurgents want to be especially careful about employing force (given the potential for huge negative unintended consequences that would follow from causing an accidental death to innocent non-combatants). In this case, logic and Occam’s Razor both suggest that one could safely assume that the two men were engaged in an activity that warranted a violent response (is it reasonable to expect that two men could be innocently digging a hole in the road in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night and then dumping something into it – especially given the well-known IED threat in the area?!?).
Of course, capture would be better than killing – but the latter certainly seemed appropriate in this particular incident. Indeed, the risk of causing animosity from a mistaken shooting needed to be weighed against the requirement to provide security for the populace. And in this case, the latter should have prevailed since providing security is critical to winning hearts and minds too and is morally/tactically/strategically superior to merely avoiding direct harm.
Don’t rope em if you can’t ride em?