For those who would ask, “What is/are ROE?” ROE is military jargon for Rules of Engagement. They tell a soldier many things guiding his duties:
1. When he can use his weapon.
2. Where he can patrol and where is out of bounds.
3. Whether or not he can chase or fire across borders at fleeing enemy soldiers/insurgents.
4. What groups or forces may be considered hostile even if they engage with lethal force.
5. Under what conditions he may return fire and when he must take cover or flee the area.
6. What buildings, such as Mosques, are to be excluded from any target list even if it is used as a firing position against the soldier.
7. What chain of command or procedures must be followed to gain authorizations to fire or return fire.
8. Guides soldiers on taking and handling of prisoner or detaining people for suspicious activity or other reasons.
9. Any other restrictions as deemed necessary can be added and the ROE can be changed as conditions warrant.
So, with our understanding of the concept of ROE’s, what are some of them that we know of and what are their affect and effect on our soldiers and chances for success in Iraq?
The most constricting ROE is the requirement that all patrols and engagements we have with any forces, including militias, insurgents, terrorists, or any other armed group, must first be approved by the Iraqi government. We have implemented this so as to reassure the people of Iraq that we are in their country to assist them in implementing their policies rather than to impose our policies. It is due to this particular ruling that we have been prevented from engaging with Muqtada Al-Sadr and his Mahdi Militia. This is due to the fact that Sadr has measurable influence over many in the Iraqi governing structures.
Another restraining influence is the ROE that demands due consideration that engagement might lead to significant civilian casualties, excessive damage to infrastructure, possible negative environmental impact, or that the intended target could be better engaged in a less destructive manner. This will often give a commander in the field pause before reacting or even to not engage before consulting through his chain of command to get clarification whether any action would be sanctioned. Such delays can and do lead to higher casualties for our troops than if they were allowed to return fire whenever they came under attack. This has also made the use of bombing, mortars, rockets, artillery, and other indirect fire methods less prevalent due to the increased radius of damage they cause thereby causing increased collateral damage and casualties.
Sometimes the ROE requires that we allow Iraqi forces to be used and that American forces be allowed a supporting role. This may lead to our troops needing to stand down in a situation and wait upon the Iraqi forces to organize and deploy. This can lead to delays in some cases, which make the engagement more dangerous and difficult or may even allow those we wish to target to withdraw rather than face destruction. This would in turn lead to having to possibly face these same forces in the future under less favorable conditions.
One last ROE I would like to mention is that it is advised that we use the minimal possible force in any engagement. This emphasis on minimalist action prevents commanders on the ground from calling in additional troops or offensive capabilities until it becomes obscenely obvious that the situation is beyond the response level of the troops engaged. This can only lead to two ramifications, first the needless loss of American lives, and second it gives the impression to the enemy that we are so understaffed that their victory is just around the corner.
The major problems and ramifications of our current ROE are that they are firstly, ambiguous and not well defined leaving too many decisions to the engaged commander while not giving them the strict guidelines that allow for fast and responsible decision making, second they allow for after the fact recriminations and second-guessing that could lead to even further ambiguities for commanders in subsequent actions as former decisions have been dissected one way then the other, and finally they are too complex and far too lengthy with too many loose definitions for any soldier to make rational choices leading to reliance on higher command leaving troops vulnerable while awaiting decisions from the Green Zone.
We need to simplify and codify straightforward and sensible ROE and then make them well known to all troops in theater. The first should be that when our troops come under fire they may respond with whatever force is deemed necessary by the commander on location and that he will have the full backing of the chain of command. Finally, we should inform the Iraqi government that our troops are sacred to us and we care for them more than we do the appearance of Iraqi independence and in the vein we will not sacrifice American lives for the sake of appearance. After these they may include desires of limited damage and minimal force but only as an after-thought. First and foremost is the safety of our troops and the honor we owe them and their families that is to protect them with every ability at our disposal.
For more information on our ROE in Iraq and in general, I recommend reading How We Fight by Colin H. Kahl in the current edition of Foreign Affairs.
Beyond the Cusp