Photograph: Steve Lewis/Reuters.
British soldiers have been directed not to shoot insurgent bomb emplacers in Afghanistan:
British soldiers who spot Taliban fighters planting roadside bombs are told not to shoot them because they do not pose an immediate threat, the Ministry of Defence has admitted. They are instead being ordered to just observe insurgents and record their position to reduce the risk of civilian casualties.
The controversial policy emerged at an inquest into the death of Sgt Peter Rayner, 34, a soldier from the 2nd Batallion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment who was killed in October last year by an improvised explosive device as he led a patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
The reason? Counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) and “courageous restraint” are cited:
Under the Geneva Convention and the nationally administered Rules of Engagement the 9,500 British troops in Afghanistan are told they can only attack if there is an immediate threat to life.
A key part of the MoD’s counter-insurgency theory holds that it is more important to win over civilians by not killing innocent people than it is to eliminate every potential insurgent.
One officer who has recently served in Afghanistan said that if a soldier wanted to ascertain if an insurgent was an immediate threat, he would have to approach him and expose himself to greater risk.
He said: “A British soldier manning a checkpoint at night might watch a man digging a hole for an IED 100 metres away and would not try to shoot at him. It’s a ludicrous situation.
“There has to be an immediate threat to life and that’s a hard thing to prove. An IED does not count as an immediate threat.
“The Americans are different – their Rules of Engagement are pretty liberal. If they even suspect someone of laying a bomb, they can shoot them.”
I’ve previously mentioned the disparity in tactics and outcomes between UK and US Marine forces in Helmand province here and here. While few have questioned the proficiency of individual British soldiers, and the US push into the province has been vastly aided by greater numbers, there are obvious differences in both tactics and political latitude granted to American commanders in the design of their ROE. Western allies in the Afghan security forces, as well as the Taliban themselves, have noticed these differences and described them as the Americans being “more willing to fight.”
For example, in addition to US forces maintaining the option to kill individuals they believe are planting IEDs, many units also have the freedom to kill spotters, as illustrated by this BBC clip from Sangin. I should note that I’ve also witnessed Marine patrols in Helmand refrain from shooting suspected spotters, contingent on the area and circumstances. I suspect the heart of the issue is the difference between limiting forces with a restrictive, uniform policy and empowering commanders to tailor the ROE according to discretion.
Counterinsurgency obviously demands a nuanced approach, one employing judicious restraint, copious “carrots” and surgical “sticks.” But effective COIN is also very much about killing the right people, and being perceived as willing to do so by both enemies and the population the COIN force is trying to sway to its side. Shooting bomb emplacers, complemented by media operations warning farmers not to dig roadside holes at night, constitutes a much more rational approach than simply letting insurgents walk. The latter sends a poor message that also has consequences.
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