Counterproductive restraint


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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  • Neonmeat says:


  • Hawk says:

    Some of this is cultural. My National Guard unit trained with a British unit in the mid-late 1990’s. I was astonished to discover that soldiers could only take cover when ordered to by their officer, and not automatically when they came under fire as Americans were trained to do. This was still in the era when the prevailing assumption was that we would be fighting a Cold War/ Persian Gulf War style high intensity conflict.

  • changez ali khan says:

    it is indeed strange on part of the United Kingdom government and armed forces. Judging from United Kingdom’s willingness to be part of any international plans that involve killing, bombing or attacking another country for last decade, one would be led to believe to that they would indeed be willing to fight and play active role. But now its confirmed by this acknowledgement that they don’t believe a thing they been willing to even lie for (the dossier affair). Unfortunately, the role of that once proud country in international affairs is now a butt of joke. What a pity

  • Charu says:

    Catch-22 in the AfPak context. Absurd!

  • Jack says:

    Sorry to refute your claim ‘Hawk’, but your assertion that UK forces are not allowed to take cover without permission is absolute rubbish. I would be interested to know exactly what regiment you were training with?

  • Mike. says:

    If I understand correctly, it is often not the Taliban per se that are planting the IEDs, or spotting, but hapless illiterate civilians being paid and/or coerced to do so.
    So is it still okay to allow units the flexibility to simply wipe them out? Not having a uniformed military force, the observation of anyone operating as part of the enemy organization would seem to be the best way of determining the enemy. This seems a fair rule in a war situation.
    But the ease with which civilians can become part of this ‘organization’, and the difficulty, sometimes, in determining what is really happening, still makes me uncomfortable. And if villages see their men killed, without some kind of context, what is the result? Maybe this is the media campaign, but maybe we need something more to make this work.

  • JiminSavage says:

    Reply to Mike – Agree with your first two paragraphs. In regards to your third paragraph observations I repectfully disagree.
    Persons hired to plant bombs become legitimate targets, even if they are only hired help. The bombs don’t know the difference. I also believe that if/when villagers see their bomb planting fellow villagers killed, they would most likely understand why it was they died.
    If I have missed your point, please advise.

  • Hawk says:

    Jack – In response to your query, I trained with a territorial unit back in 1998. They did an AT in the United States at Ft Pickett, VA. The unit was the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Their SOP was that the officer initiated when they moved, when they stopped and when they went into the prone position. Based on what you said, they may have changed their tactics since then.

  • Hawk says:

    Jack – amplifying information on previous comment. I was trained as an 11B and I do know the difference between patrolling and movement under fire (the previous entry sounded like I was describing patrolling). They were definitely training for movement under fire.

  • Crass Spektakel says:

    Interestingly four years ago exactly the same problem came up with german forces in northern afghanistan.
    Underpowered, undedicated the rather stable situation in the north went from dubious to dangerous to disastrous.
    Then the caveats got changed (and the forces in the region got doubled). Now it is pretty much “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck and tries to do like a duck it gets shot like a duck.”
    Which resultet in 140-180 dead in the great Kunduz duck shooting: //

  • Albert W. L. Moore, Jr. says:

    The Englishmen have been out in the midday sun.


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