by Ashley George – War has been a part of human history and our evolution for many millennia and through out this time the rules of war have often changed. But does war really have rules? It seems to be a free-for-all in many cases, but the United States has directives called Rules of Engagement (ROE) that dictate how our armed forces interact with their enemy during active conflict. While many may be familiar with the international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions, which regulate the treatment of prisoners of war and civilians, ROEs, at their core, are set in place to prevent military members from completely losing their sense of self, preserve their civility, and, more importantly, their humanity.
While these ROEs are meant to keep war as civilized as possible, many believe these directives are just hindering our military’s ability to fight our enemies. In 2013 Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Secretary of State John F. Kerry proposed a new Bilateral Security Agreement, which prohibited U.S. troops from entering dwellings during combat. More importantly, during that time ROEs placed the burden on U.S. air and ground troops to confirm with certainty that a Taliban fighter is armed before they can fire; even if they are 100 percent sure the target is the enemy. The increasingly burdensome checklist before they can fire has made it increasingly difficult to engage the enemy and keep our troops safe.
A sample ROE card carried by soldier laid out the ROE as follows:
“On order, enemy military and paramilitary forces are declared hostile and may be attacked subject to the following instructions:
- Positive identification (PID) is required prior to engagement. . . If no PID, contact your next higher commander for decision.
- Do not engage anyone who has surrendered or is out of battle due to sickness or wounds.
- Do not target or strike any of the following except in self-defense to protect yourself, your unit, friendly forces, and designated persons or property under your control:
- Hospitals, mosques, national monuments, and any other historical and cultural sites.
- Do not fire into civilian populated areas or buildings unless the enemy is using them for military purposes or if necessary for your self-defense. Minimize collateral damage.
- Do not target enemy infrastructure, lines of Communication and economic objects unless necessary for self-defense or if ordered by your commander. If you must fire on these objects to engage a hostile force, disable and disrupt but avoid destruction of these objects, if possible.”
Now with ISIS gaining more and more power in the Middle East, the U.S. government has begun to reconsider the over-burdensome restricts placed on troops. Specifically, the ROEs surrounding airstrikes over Iraq and Syria. With concern over innocent civilians becoming casualties in an airstrike, the U.S. government is discussing whether multiple confirmed sources of intelligence must be in hand before a strike is approved. “In each strike that is currently contemplated, there is an assessment of potential civilian casualties and top commanders must decide whether to proceed.”
Since the attacks in Paris, France and Great Britain have become active members in the air campaign and have balked at the tight restrictions U.S. ROEs have placed on our military forces. British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon stated “war is a messy business; you cannot eliminate all risk.” He may have a valid point when “figures released by the military, [show] about 56 percent of all coalition aircraft return from “strike missions” without having used their weapons, either because of bad weather or a judgment that the risk of civilian casualties is too high.” One has to wonder what impact those incomplete missions have on the destruction of ISIS.
Fortunately, while airstrike ROE reform is still being contemplated, the government has now placed ISIS in the same category as al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, allowing U.S. strike forces to target militants just for being associated with the terror network; previously, they could only be targeted if they showed hostile intent. It will be interesting to see if this change gives our military the some of the flexibility they desire to properly combat ISIS.
In the end, no matter what happens in the near future concerning ROE, Judge Advocate Generals, military lawyers, are going to continue to have the difficult job of advising military commanders on these laws of war.