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When the U.S. military was bogged down in Iraq prior to the "troop surge" of 2007, its efforts were hampered not only by insufficient manpower but also by the restrictive rules of engagement it was required to observe. As Army Staff Sergeant David Bellavia recalls, throughout his deployment in Iraq in 2004 the military made innumerable concessions to local and cultural sensitivities that not only inhibited its ability to fight, but also endangered the lives of American troops. For instance, in a village in Diyala province – then a prime refuge for al-Qaeda in Iraq – the resident sheiks protested that Americans would not be welcome unless they abandoned their tanks and fighting vehicles and entered the area on foot. “Our platoons basically said, 'Yes,'” Bellavia recalls with dismay. “We were sent to fight al-Qaeda and in that situation we were forced to fight on al-Qaeda’s terms.”

That scenario was not atypical. The rules of engagement in Iraq prohibited the military from entering mosques, treating them always as sacred sites instead of what they often were, namely, weapons storehouses and bases of operations for Iraqi insurgents and their allies in foreign terrorist organizations.

In Fallujah in November of 2004, Bellavia’s unit learned firsthand the perils of that policy. After taking intense fire from a mosque, the GIs moved in to surround it. Restricted from entering the mosque themselves, the troops were forced to wait until an Iraqi unit could be found to enter the mosque and root out the attackers. “Meanwhile, we’re exposing ourselves to hellfire,” Bellavia recalls. “Even when the Iraqis arrived, we had to ask for permission to enter the firefight.... [We were] being asked to respect landmarks that we [knew] for a fact [were] being used as stockpiles for weapons. On the level, the whole thing is ridiculous.”

The situation became even worse for U.S. troops over the ensuing two years. “When I went to Iraq in 2004,” says Bellavia, “before entering Fallujah we were given a pep talk. We were told, ‘Kill the rattlesnake before it strikes.’ But when I went back in 2006 as a reporter, I heard [officers] telling those kids things like, ‘If you make a mistake, we’ll come after you.’ I thought to myself, ‘That’s the pep talk you’re giving them?’”

Paradoxically, the military’s well-intentioned efforts to tread carefully around Iraqi culture and to minimize civilian casualties sometimes led to more civilian deaths. The folly of this policy was illustrated in one instructive incident involving a mosque. On February 22, 2006, the political climate in Iraq, which was already fragile, took a sharp turn for the worse when Iraqi militants disguised as police officers forced their way into the Golden Mosque of Samara and triggered twin bomb blasts that decimated the revered Shiite structure. In the aftermath, 20 Sunni mosques across Iraq were targeted by retaliatory attacks, including bombs; at least 18 people, among them two Sunni clerics, were killed. Then-Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari, recognizing the scope of the violence, declared a day of national mourning.

But the Golden Mosque might have been saved and the subsequent spree of violence averted if an American Special Police Transition Team, positioned just feet from the mosque, had been allowed to intervene to root out the insurgents. “The whole time we knew explosives and weapons were in the mosque,” Major Darrell Green, the team’s commander, would later recall. But because rules of engagement prevented the team from entering the mosque, Green and his men were forced to look impotently on as the military’s grand plans to accommodate Iraqi culture went up in smoke.

Among the more notable individuals to capitalize on America's restrictive rules of engagement was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late head of al-Qaeda’s operations in Iraq. In 2005, Zarqawi was spotted by an Army Ranger unit speeding through a roadblock. With Zarqawi’s vehicle in his site, a machine gunner asked for permission to take out the target. But since the rules of engagement prevented the Rangers from firing unless they had 100 percent “positive identification” -- a difficult proposition in a speeding vehicle -- the permission was denied. Zarqawi lived to fight for another year, directly ordering hundreds of suicide bombings, kidnappings and beheadings while bolstering his reputation with stories of an unlikely escape from the U.S. military, before finally being killed in a June 2006 air strike.

By no means was Iraq the only theater of the War on Terror where restrictive rules of engagement undermined U.S. military objectives. For example, in September 2006 American forces had the opportunity to kill nearly 200 known Taliban who were gathered at a gravesite during a burial in Afghanistan. But the troops could not get permission from their superiors to take action -- because it would have been considered disrespectful to fire upon mourners at a cemetery.

The battlefield rules of engagement were tightened even further by Gen. Stanley McChrystal under President Barack Obama in 2010, on the theory that this would reduce civilian casualties and win the cooperation of local populations. These new restrictions placed American soldiers in much greater danger, as exemplified by this Omaha World-Herald account of an April 2011 incident in Afghanistan:

In April 2011, a roadside bomb exploded under an armored vehicle carrying Iowa National Guard troops as they patrolled north of Kabul. Almost immediately after the explosion — which destroyed the vehicle's front half but resulted in no injuries — the Iowa soldiers spotted a man sprinting away from where they believed the blast had been triggered. “We've got a triggerman running towards the valley,” reported an Iowa voice over the radio.

The gunner frantically and forcefully asked for permission to shoot — he had the runner in his sights — but that permission was denied after a quick and heated back-and-forth with the truck commander. The incident left the gunner and others in the convoy suspecting that they had just let an insurgent scamper away after trying to kill them.

The Omaha World-Herald also reported on the experiences of Ross Wimer, a Marine who was deployed in October 2010 toa southern Afghan district known as one of the most dangerous spots in the country:

Nearly every day, Wimer and his Marine unit would leave their tiny and primitive combat outpost and wade into serious danger. At least 25 of the battalion's approximately 900 Marines died during the deployment. Nearly 200 were wounded, many of them losing limbs to improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

During day patrols, Wimer and the other Marines found nearly 1,000 IEDs, he said. On many nights, the Marines watched through their night-vision goggles as shadowy figures dug holes in the ground, and on several occasions they opened fire. At some point, the order came down: Stop shooting at night unless you can positively identify an insurgent. “We knew what that person was doing ... burying an IED for sure,” said Wimer.... “But the command would say, ‘You can't be positive. They might be a farmer.' Ridiculous.”

In early 2012, the Obama Administration changed the way federal agents were trained to combat Islamic terrorism by eliminating all instructional materials that depicted Muslims or Islam as being prone to violence or terrorism. As part of what the Wall Street Journal characterized as a "government-wide call to end Islamophobia," the White House ordered the FBI to destroy such materials.

Also under orders from the Obama Administration, a new military handbook for U.S. troops deployed to the Middle East contained a list of “taboo conversation topics” that soldiers should avoid, including “making derogatory comments about the Taliban,” “advocating women’s rights,” “any criticism of pedophilia” (because older Muslim men often take child brides), “directing any criticism towards Afghans,” “mentioning homosexuality and homosexual conduct,” or “anything related to Islam.” Further, the manual suggests that the increase in deadly attacks by Afghan soldiers against coalition forces (resulting in more than 60 coalition deaths during 2012) was due to Western ignorance of Afghan culture, rather than to Taliban infiltration of those forces: “Better situational awareness/understanding of Afghan culture will help better prepare [troops] to more effectively partner and to avoid cultural conflict that can lead toward green-on-blue violence.”

In 2012, Breitbart.com reported that: "The rules of engagement (ROEs) governing a U.S. soldier's response to enemy fighters in Afghanistan has made that country more dangerous for U.S. soldiers under the Obama administration." The report quoted some members of a Cavalry Scout Platoon that was on the ground near Camp Wright in Kunar Province, Afghanistan:

  • "During the Bush administration, we were able to engage terrorists planting IEDs with greater ease. Now, if we see two guys on the side of the road and it looks like they're planting an IED, we are told to wait -- because they might be farmers. It's like our goal is to kill them with kindness. We're going to win Afghans over with money, clinics, roads, etc., instead of winning their confidence by killing the Taliban or the Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG)."
  • "We have certain counter-insurgency (COIN) techniques that support the Afghan population by removing the terrorists from their midst. COIN involves clearing the enemy out, keeping the enemy out, and helping the people get on their feet once the threat is removed (clear, hold, develop). However, under the current ROEs, while we hold the area we've cleared, redlines are set beyond which we can't venture. This creates a perimeter beyond which the enemy remains untouchable. The enemy literally sits outside those lines and waits for us leave so they can move back in. Another problem is that once we've cleared a place, we only hold it for a short time before we move on to the next place in order to show 'progress.' The bad news is that this 'progress' might look good on paper, but it doesn't involve the aggressive killing of the enemy which is necessary if COIN is to be carried out the way it was designed."
  •  "[W]e have Escalation of Force Kits. These keep people away in a non-lethal manner. To do that, they used to contain 'KEEP BACK' signs we'd put on our trucks during a convoy and the kits also had small flares we could fire. These things were taken away and instead we were told to drive with the same courtesy we would use if driving in the U.S. That means if cars get backed up behind us, we are to pull over and let them pass. This takes our buffer -- our zone of safety -- completely away. Because once we pull over, the cars get to pass right up against us and that opens the door for suicide bombers, suicide bombs, and gun fire. We allow people to get so close to our vehicles that we have no time to react should they try to do something."

Portions of this piece are adapted from "The Truth about the Troops," by Jacob Laksin (November 26, 2007).


Standing Rules of Engagement for U.S. Forces
By Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
January 15, 2000

U.S. Rules of Engagement for Iraq
Published by WikiLeaks


White Guilt and the American Way of War
By Shelby Steele
July 30, 2006

The Truth about the Troops
By Jacob Laksin
November 26, 2007

The NCOs Speak on Rules of Engagement
By Herschel Smith
December 13, 2006

Politically Correct Rules of Engagement Endanger Troops
By Herschel Smith
December 6, 2006
Rules of Engagement: Can Our Troops Defend Themselves?
By Dave Eberhart
December 6, 2005

Racoon Hunting and the Battle for Anbar
By Herschel Smith
November 25, 2006

Soldiers: Obama's Rules of Engagement Costing U.S. Lives in Afghanistan
By Awr Hawkins
October 28, 2012

COIN's Failure in Afghanistan
By Oleg Svet
August 31, 2012
Current U.S. Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan Problematic
By William Mayer
December 17, 2009

U.S. Troops Battle Both Taliban and Their Own Rules
By Sara Carter
November 16, 2009

An NCO Recognizes a Flawed Afghanistan Strategy
By George Will
June 20, 2010

Changes to the Rules of Engagement for Afghanistan
By Herschel Smith
June 23, 2009


How “Rules of Engagement” Get U.S. Soldiers Killed 
Jamie Glazov interviews Stephen Coughlin
April 26, 2016


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