Murphy's Law: American Atrocities


March 26, 2015: In Syria and Iraq the Islamic terrorists are benefitting from pioneering work done by the Afghan Taliban to make it more difficult for Western air forces to use their smart bombs and superior sensors to find and cripple Islamic terrorists on the ground. American, Iraqi and other Arab leaders are complaining that the restrictive American ROE (Rules Of Engagement) are and how these rules severely limits the number of targets that can be hit. As a result ISIL can move around more freely despite the constant presence of coalition aircraft overhead.

All this began in Afghanistan where the Taliban learned how to exploit the ROE and increase the demands for fewer civilian casualties, even if it meant the troops were put in more danger. Sometimes this approach actually put civilians in more danger. For example, as the ROW got more restrictive American troops increasingly encountered angry Afghan civilians who demanded that the Americans act more decisively in pursuing and killing Taliban gunman, even if it put Afghan civilians at risk. The civilians could do the math and knew if Taliban were not killed they would go on to kill more civilians.

All this was an unexpected side effect of a 2009 change in the U.S. ROE in Afghanistan. This was in response to popular (or at least media) anger at civilians killed by American smart bombs. As a result of the new ROE, it became much more difficult to get permission to drop a smart bomb when there might be civilians nearby. After 2009 American commanders had to decide who they should respond to, Afghan civilians asking for relief from Taliban oppression or Taliban influenced media condemning the U.S. for any Afghan civilians killed, or thought to be killed, by American firepower. What to do?

Taliban propaganda, and the enthusiasm of the media for jumping on real, or imagined, civilian deaths caused by foreign troops, made people forget that far more civilians (about four times as many) had been killed by the Taliban. But because Afghans have been conditioned to expect more civilized behavior from the foreign troops, much less media attention is paid to the civilians killed by the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Of course Afghan civilians are aware of who is killing most of the civilians, and that's why the Taliban and al Qaeda get low numbers in local opinion polls. But the media, hammering foreign troops every time they kill a civilian or are simply (often falsely) accused of doing so, led to the ROE becoming far more strict than it ever was in Iraq. Thus, one Taliban victory you don't hear much about is how they turned their use of human shields into a powerful, and very successful, propaganda weapon against NATO and U.S. troops and an excellent way to avoid getting attacked. ISIL is now benefitting from this, even though ISIL kills more civilians than the Taliban.

Under the new ROE you had to, in effect, do a casualty analysis and consult a lawyer before a deliberate missile or smart bomb attack is made on the Taliban. To their credit, the U.S. Air Force targeting specialists (who do most of this) can carry out the analysis quickly (often within minutes). Even the lawyers have gotten quick at the decision making game. The bad news is that attacks are often called off just because there's some small risk of harming civilians or because the delay enabled the enemy to get away.

The Taliban are aware of the ROE and take advantage of it. The Taliban and ISIL try to live among civilians as much as possible. But the Taliban and ISIL do have to move around, and the ability of NATO and U.S. ground forces, aircraft, and UAVs to keep eyes on a Islamic terrorist leader for weeks at a time has led to the deaths of many smug guys who thought they had beat the system.

The U.S. Air Force managed to reduce civilian casualties, from deliberate air attack, to near zero. Most of the Afghan civilian casualties occur when airpower is called in to help NATO and U.S. troops under attack. In these conditions the ROE is much more flexible but now Taliban use of civilians as human shields could sometimes be allowed to get friendly troops killed. The tactics used by foreign troops changed to adapt to this and there were some tense situations where Afghan troops were getting hammered, calling for a smart bomb, and told that they can't have it because of the risk of civilian casualties. Another risk was Taliban or ISIL dragging some women and kids along with them when they move, simply to exploit the ROE and avoid getting hit with a smart bomb.

The new restrictions on the use of air power, and the greater Islamic terrorist use of civilians as human shields, has enabled the Taliban and ISIL to avoid a lot of situations where they would otherwise get killed. When they are out in the open, the Taliban still got toasted regularly by foreign troops (with or without the use of smart bombs). The new ROE was based on the fact that the Taliban were increasingly openly hated by Afghan civilians. This led to more tribes getting angry enough to fight the Taliban. This was why outside of Pushtun areas (most of southern Afghanistan) you saw very few Taliban. The Taliban are basically a Pushtun thing and non-Pushtun people are violently opposed to any Taliban moving into their territory. The new American ROE hoped to exploit that growing hatred of the Taliban in the south. But in some areas of the south, particularly Helmand province (where most of the world’s heroin comes from), where the Taliban and locals are in the drug business together, there are still fans of the Taliban. Moreover, the Taliban recruits heavily in Helmand and adjacent provinces. This is where the Taliban came from (initially as refugees living in Pakistan). Helmand has always been ground zero in the fight against the Taliban, and now the fight has gotten harder and more dangerous.

In Syria and Iraq the ROE are very unpopular with the civilians living under ISIL control. ISIL is much hated and at times the American ROE is hated even more because it allows ISIL to move about and commit more atrocities against civilians.



Article Archive

Murphy's Law: Current 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close