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Why Leaders Make the ROE

Since General McChrystal originally posted his counter-insurgency guidance--and classified Rules of Engagement--pundits and bloggers in the right wing media have made quite a few accusations. Some have called Obama's new Rules of Engagement are an outrage. Some call them Rules of Endangerment. Some have said they put our Soldier's at risk. One blogger has even said that our Soldiers wonder who is the bigger enemy, the Taliban or Obama's Rules of EngagementHell, Marcus Lutrell wrote a whole book on 'em.

General McChrystal created a strict ROE for Afghanistan for a specific reason: to win. He modeled the new ROE on policies that have proven successful in Iraq and other counter-insurgencies.

And it is right he did so. Leaders must make the Rules of Engagement. While the Soldiers and NCOs on the ground makes the split second decisions about how to use ROE, leaders must establish the guidance.

This seems backwards to some people. Many Soldiers (and bloggers) think we should always trust the NCO on the ground. The thinking goes, "No politician in Washington, no General in the Pentagon, nor any staff officer at Bagram Air Field can make better decisions than the leaders on the ground." This is a false dilemma. Often, what Soldiers believe keeps them safe actually endangers the mission.

In war we have to do things that put our lives at risk. In a counter-insurgency, that means risking lives to save or limit civilian deaths. In World War II, storming the beaches of Normandy was excessively dangerous to our troops, but we had to do it. In counter-insurgency, a new ROE will make life more dangerous for Soldiers, but it will help us win.

But why do Leaders make the ROE?

COIN is a war of degrees. Traditionalists still expect Generals to move troops around on a big board the way Civil War generals did. Traditionalists still look for ways to attack the enemy, not protect the population. Traditionalists still want big operations. However, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not about big maneuver operations; they are the sum total of small patrols repeated consistently over time. Generals no longer tell units how to maneuver, they make small changes in tactics and strategy that are repeated over time.

The rules of engagement are one tool they can use to make those changes.

The FM 3-24, the new counter-insurgency manual, describes the paradoxes of defeating an insurgency. One of those paradoxes is that wildly engaging (and missing) the enemy makes the counter-insurgent look weak. Another is that killing the enemy frequently costs you support and makes the enemy stronger. These two ideas don’t make sense in regular war, but counter-insurgency is counter-intuitive.

Soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and officers new to counter-insurgency do not fully understand political war. ROE exists to force soldiers to follow good counter-insurgency theory, even though it seems counter-intuitive.

seventeen comments

There is a kind of tactical illusion, where people forget that their immediate needs to compare to long term needs. It is an optical illusion of how the battlefield works.

So wait…the warrior ethos isn’t ‘I will place the safety of my men and myself above all else’…?

Michael, I’m sure you’ve had the discussion with an NCO about how bringing everyone back safe shouldn’t be the goal of a deployment. Don’t get me wrong…that is an admirable goal that we should all strive for, but it can’t be #1.

How do you share and grow an interest in long term stability and safety? I tried, not sure if it worked. I guess it is too easy to think every IP, IA, or Afghan Army guy is crooked and planting IEDs when you aren’t looking. Sad. A bullet offers a quicker return than rehabilitation and trust.

To end- I don’t want to only point at NCOs and soldiers…I don’t think that 90% of officers buy into discretion and productive risk.

I suspect that if these changes were made under Bush, many of those critiquing the new ROE wouldn’t have an issue. Your post makes a lot of sense, but for some people, they never pass up an opportunity to bash Obama no matter how absurd. As a former infantry officer, I happen to hate it when they use “the troops” as pawns in their game.

RJS’s last blog post: Contractors and Mercenaries

Great post!

I suspect that many critics still have the left over bitter experience of Vietnam, and the perception that that war was run from Washington.

We say that we want to give our soldiers the freedom to win the war, but we do need to balance that freedom with some sort of strategy that will eventually bring them home, and bring stability to Afghanistan.

These are great points. ROE is not a “lawyer” issue. ROE, properly developed and communicated are really another form of commander’s guidance/intent. Where there is a breakdown is when ROE gets presented, as you allude, only as legal restrictions. If understood in this way, the force will approach ROE in a legalistic manner, looking for loopholes, paying attnetion to the letter, vice the spirit of the instructions. Its incumbent on the chain of command to educate the force on the connection between the ROE and mission accomplishment (which ultimately saves lives by creating a secure environment sooner). Semper Fi,

Is there a place where this ROE is publicly published, I haven´t really heard about this and would like to see the actual ROE and how restrictive it is. It sounds like a lot of this ROE change is primarily for the approval process to providing supporting fire?

I noticed I didn’t use the term ROE in my comment- so add this…soldiers don’t seem to trust that the current (heck, all) ROE is in their best interest. Many leaders think ROE does nothing but impair their ability to accomplish the mission. Most are still hesitant to embrace population centric operations.

@ Jon – I’m reading Generation Kill right now, and it has that dichotomy in it. The order of priorities is Accomplish the mission, then protect your men. The problem is, most people reverse that order, including politicians, generals, the media and the general public.

@ RJS – I agree but with a minor modification. Some soldiers will complain no matter what the leadership does.

@ Wingnut – Thanks, and good point.

@ Phil – We wrote a post early on that dealt with this, how soldiers would fudge IDs to get in more kills. (Operation Judgement Day)

@ Chris C – I don’t know. We’ll have to see what Michael C says.

Jon- Are Officers guilty of what I charge above? Yes they are. In this post I was trying to highlight why Officers at every level make the ROE in the first place, to win the war. But do some officers not buy in? Absolutely and I probably didn’t highlight that enough in the post.

As for getting troops to buy in, my section sergeant and I discussed this at the funeral I attended. He said my example was what taught him about COIN. So basically, sometimes you have to go Petreaus or McChrystal on it and just force it on subordinate leaders.

RJS- Thanks for the kind words. You might be right about the Obama/Bush cause, but criticisms of the ROE have been around since you were a PL. You referenced your last post, we have a series on contractors that takes a more critical look than yours.

Wingnut- Yeah another post could be written on the differences between short term survival and long term gains. That is what you are really talking about in COIN, but it is hard to translate to 24 hour media operations.

Phil- Letter of the law versus spirit of the law is a great distinction. Again this is why leaders need to lead and communicate their vision. Hopefully, that vision will win the war in the long term.

Chris C- ROE is technically a Secret document for operational use only. I guess leaders don’t want to give away their strategy. I am ambivalent about this particular issue, I could argue for or against keeping it classified. But it is.

Jon- Good points and unfortunately that is what will either cause us lose or, and this is my personal vendetta, is that the sins of our Army in OIF in 2003/4 would get visited on the soldiers of OIF in 2007. What we did in the past, with loose ROE, caused the deaths of future Soldiers. It is loyalty misguided.

Its hard for me to either criticize or praise the decision if I don´t know the particulars of the ROE, but I thought with so much public debate about it that it had been leaked somewhere.

The ROE is always a very fine line, from what I´ve heard “letting insurgents escape if engaging them means risking innocent casualties” is a wise if understandably controversial move.

Not letting people engage when they are directly threatened is not going to work. The mantra of “better judged by 12 than carried by 6” is widespread throughout the Army, and in a kill or be killed kind of situation people are going to make a split second decision regardless of what the ROE are. I think that is the limitation of the ROE, in cases like that it would never prevent engagement but may end up getting soldiers doing what they felt was necessary to survive court martialed.

Chris- Most of the commentary came from what people assumed the ROE was based on McChrystal’s counter-insurgency guidance, the ten page doc explaining that killing civilians is bad.

Unfortunately, most of the time when the worst violations of ROE occur Soldiers aren’t directly threatened. Soldiers may feel threatened, or the enemy is retreating, and they are engaged. This is from an Afghanistan background and that is what happens.

Michael C. I wouldn’t say your forced it on me, so don’t get too big for your britches over there! :) I’d say I started to figure it out, but when it came down to it, the accomplishment of the immediate mission was at the forefront of my mind, and not the overall political strategy of our nations leaders. So, with that said, if we were getting fired up near a village, and I had a building to move the guys into nearby for cover, well, I would break the rules and grab that cover and a stronghold by entering the building and continue to fight the battle from there. Fortunately, the terrain is so jacked up in Afghanistan, that we could certainly find cover anywhere and I do understand that what we do now may or may not create 40 more insurgents.

However, I would still not hesitate to react in a way that would save the lives of that platoon. I think that’s the great difference in NCOs and Officers. And I think that now that is why they put a “private with a degree” in charge of those with much more experience. It is so that the officers intelligence in these matters can balance with the NCOs hard-charging, “lets kill everyone so all our boys make it back” mentality. It actually turns out to be a pretty good combo, as we experienced through our own trials and tribulations.

Anyhow, I’m gonna write more and email to you for some guest posting. I’ll try my damndest to make it sound intelligent, I swear!

Sounds good. Yeah it is a weird dynamic that if either side is out of balance can have ill effects.

I would also say units fire outward much more than they receive inwards, and that is where some of the trouble lies.

Gen. McChrystal is one of the foremost experts in the Western world on counterinsurgency strategies. But I think soldiers everywhere understand what a “political war” is. Generally it means you have to fight with one hand tied behind your back.

This is a good article published a few months ago about how junior leaders and Soldiers sometimes embrace a population COIN strategy more readily than senior leaders.


By the way, while this article was written about one of our sister BNs, I’ve never been to the Arghandab or worked with 1-17 so I can’t comment on whether or not this article got it “right”.

Marcus Lutrell lied about what happened during that tragic Seal operation. Ask any Seal in the know. So maybe his boring, repetitive drivel about liberals in government and problems with constraints constitutes another mindless, intellectually vapid, bottomless, opinionated and not terribly honest proclamation by which he can excuse and justify God knows what, minimize his own guilt in what was a very f—d up affair.

Wow, you nailed that review, Jaylo. In two weeks we decimate that book. Wait for it.