ROE’s vs Insurgents

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?

8 thoughts on “ROE’s vs Insurgents

  1. One thing just really jumped out at me while reading this post: “Clearly the outcome of this episode could have been a lot worse. It could have been Americans hit by the IED.”

    Does that mean it’s better for Afghans to be hit by a bomb? Is any given American more valuable than an Afghan?

    1. Depends on who you talk to. Rephrasing Colonel Pogue from “Full Metal Jacket”:

      “We are here to help the Afghans, because inside every Afghan there is an American trying to get out. It’s a hardball world, son. We’ve gotta keep our heads until this peace craze blows over.”

  2. You’ll note that I also mentioned worse impacts to the Afghans in the next sentence. Therefore, I think the possible deaths of Afghans was also very important in this case.

    But in the context of public policy, I do think that political leaders have a higher responsibility to their own soldiers than to others. It isn’t some kind of utilitarian calculus in which they ought to value lives equally as if they were cosmopolitans. If that is true, imagine the ramifications for war and non-war scenarios.

  3. This post brings home the biggest problem with trying to effectively organize large groups of individuals — you need to get more and more abstract in order to come up with a general enough rule that can be universally applied. Usually, the individual directly exposed to the circumstances and context of the decision will best be able to determine a practical solution, but the larger and more interconnected societies become the harder it is to say who exactly understands and has exposure to ‘the context’. Does that one soldier understand the full implications of what shooting suspicious Afghans would be? I doubt it. In fact, I highly doubt that anyone does either, especially blog-commenting civilians on the other side of the globe. This war, being one of ‘winning the hearts and minds’, is very much about perception and aesthetics, and this makes it very hard to predict what sort of impression such a shooting would have made upon Afghans. Another way to think of it: What is the opportunity cost of having no rules of engagement, and allowing individual soldiers to make that call? By what measure could you then discipline soldiers that abuse that freedom?

  4. I’m not saying abandon ROE’s – impossible and unwise (especially for the reason you give). I’m saying that the superiors here were too tight with what kind of evidence was sufficient to justify a positive call on the shoot – especially since the cost of not acting has to be taken into account too.

    BTW, be careful what you assume about “blog-commenting civilians.”

  5. Occam’s Razor would suggest that the story is incorrect as reported. Think about it. Two potential unfriendlies were burying a possible IED by the road and no one was sent to investigate it and disarm it?. It was merely left there to explode at some point in the future? I am sorry, bring me a different story and we will discuss the merits.

    1. I had some doubts about that part of the story too – but note that this potential IED was not right next door and the article suggests that the outpost was not exactly in safe territory to just wander out at will and investigate. I’m trying to follow up with the reporter on this.

      1. I went and read through the original piece. It does suggest that they could not act on it in the heat of the moment. Yet the author is enjoying a cup of tea when the bomb goes off. How much time has transpired between the firefight and the cup of tea is not revealed. One thing I am absolutely certain of is that they would not leave potential unexploded ordinance unchecked or unmarked if they were able to get to it and survey it.

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