The mission to help Iraqis build a free and prosperous Iraq is at a critical juncture. In order to reduce the unacceptably high levels of violence, the president has recently set forth a new strategy that increases the number of troops patrolling the streets of Baghdad and Anbar province. Although some Americans have concerns about this new strategy, they are united in their desire that our troops have the best training and equipment possible in order to achieve success. Americans also want to ensure that our leaders are sending our forces into combat with rules of engagement that permit them to accomplish the mission without subjecting themselves to undue risk.
Two separate articles from Jan. 26 editions of The Washington Times offer contradictory assertions concerning rules of engagement for U.S. forces in Iraq. The first article asserts that the rules are too specific and demanding, placing troops at risk. The second article argues that the rules are vague and confusing, endangering troops who must make life and death decisions in an instant.
Both assertions are wrong.
Contrary to the claim in “Untie military hands,” the rules of engagement in Iraq do not require U.S. service members to satisfy seven steps prior to using force. Instead, the overriding rule for all service members is that nothing in our rules of engagement prevents our troops from using necessary and proportional force to defend themselves.
This foundational concept of U.S. rules of engagement (ROE) is provided to every service member on a pocket-size ROE card. More important, service members are trained to understand this rule and its application in life or death situations. While I cannot rule out the possibility that a leader at a lower level may have issued the restrictive guidance stated in the article, such guidance is in direct conflict with both current ROE and command policy.
The law of armed conflict requires that, to use force, “combatants” must distinguish individuals presenting a threat from innocent civilians. This basic principle is accepted by all disciplined militaries. In the counterinsurgency we are now fighting, disciplined application of force is even more critical because our enemies camouflage themselves in the civilian population. Our success in Iraq depends on our ability to treat the civilian population with humanity and dignity, even as we remain ready to immediately defend ourselves or Iraqi civilians when a threat is detected.
If someone levels an AK-47 at our troops, or if our forces receive hostile fire, the current ROE unambiguously allow our troops to fire immediately in self-defense. In either situation, our forces are trained to recognize the threat and respond with appropriate force to eliminate it. This does not mean “firing wildly”; instead, the individual perceiving the threat identifies the source of that threat, and engages with disciplined shots. “Positive identification” of a threat has nothing to do with membership in a particular ethnic or sectarian group, and has everything to do with recognizing hostile intent. U.S. forces in Iraq have never had limitations beyond that.
“Vague rules,” on the other hand, asserts that vague rules of engagement endanger our troops. The article focuses on the words “use minimum force necessary to decisively eliminate the threat.” Although this phrase articulates the self-defense principles of necessity and proportionality — principles that are especially relevant in the current counterinsurgency fight — it neither appears nor is discussed on the ROE card issued to U.S. service members in Iraq.
Moreover, ROE remain commanders’ — not lawyers’ — rules for the use of force. Commanders ensure that ROE cards are periodically reviewed to identify problems of interpretation that may emerge.
No words on a card can fully address every situation a soldier or Marine will face in Iraq. ROE cards were never intended to tell service members exactly what to do in a specific situation, nor were they designed as a stand-alone reference. Instead, they serve as a reminder of general principles of the law of armed conflict taught from the time one enters basic training.
Ultimately, the answer to the issues raised by both articles is training, not rule-writing. We train service members to apply ethics, values, experience and situational awareness to make judgment calls in ever-changing situations that require split-second decisions. Properly trained, service members know that they can engage only valid targets using the force appropriate to decisively eliminate the threat.
Admittedly, this is a tough task. But everyday, 136,000 U.S. servicemen and women lace up their boots, strap on their body armor and drive ahead with our mission to help Iraqis build a free, prosperous and united Iraq.
And everyday in Iraq, U.S. service members are put into positions requiring them to make good judgment calls. Our troops can and do make the right decisions. We expect and demand nothing less.
Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV is spokesman for the Multi-National Force in Iraq.