Advice for General Petraeus on the Rules of Engagement:
It’s Neither/Nor, Not Either/Or

Tom Engelhardt, author of the recently-published The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books, July 2010) and editor of Tomdispatch.com, writes in a guest editorial for Informed Comment:

Recently, we’ve been flooded with news stories and debate about the “rules of engagement” for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Now-discredited war commander General Stanley McChrystal, we’ve been told, instituted fiercely restrictive rules of engagement to lessen the number of Afghan civilians who died or were wounded at the hands of American forces, and to “protect the people,” just as the “hearts and minds” part of counterinsurgency doctrine tells us should be done. Specifically, he made it far harder for U.S. troops under fire to call in air strikes or artillery support if civilians might possibly be in the vicinity of any firefight. Grumbling about this among those troops, according to Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone reporter whose piece took McChrystal down, had already reached something close to fever pitch by the time the general and his special ops cronies began mouthing off in frustration in Paris.

Articles in which troops or mid-level officers claim to be “handcuffed by our chain of command” are now almost as common as implicitly critical stories about the dismal failure of McChrystal’s counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. General David Petraeus, on being given command of the war effort, turned immediately to those rules of engagement, promising not to change them, but to thoroughly review and “clarify” their “implementation and interpretation.”

What this means, we don’t yet know, but we should know one thing: the present discussion of counterinsurgency and of those rules of engagement makes little sense. They are being presented as a kind of either/or option — kill us or kill them — when it would be more accurate to say that it’s a neither/nor situation.

After all, in another, less protective part of McChrystal’s counterinsurgency war, he was bulking up special operations forces in the country and sending them out on night raids searching for Taliban mid-level leaders. These raids continue to caused a cascade of civilian casualties, as well as an increasing uproar of protest among outraged Afghans. In addition, even with McChrystal’s tight rules for normal grunts, stories about the deaths of civilians, private security guards, and Afghan soldiers from air strikes, misplaced artillery fire, checkpoint shootings, and those night raids continue to pour out, followed by the usual American initial denials and then formulaic apologies for loss of life.

Whatever the rules, civilians continue to die in striking numbers at the hands of guerrillas and of American forces, and here’s the thing: tighten those rules, loosen them, fiddle with them, bend them, evade them, cancel them — at some level it’s all still neither/nor, not either/or. In any counterinsurgency war where guerrillas, faced with vastly superior fire power, fight from cover and work hard to blend in with the populace, where the counterinsurgents are foreigners about as alien from the land they are to “protect” as humanly possible, and fight, in part, from on high or based on “intelligence” from others about a world they can’t fathom, civilians will die. Lots of civilians. Continually. Whatever rules you make up. The issue isn’t the “rules of engagement.” No rules of engagement will alter the fact that civilian death is the central fact of such wars.

It’s time to stop talking about those rules and start talking about the madness of making counterinsurgency the American way of war. It wasn’t always so. Not so long ago, after all, it was considered a scandal that, post-Vietnam, the U.S. military rebuilt its all-volunteer force without rewriting or reconsidering its counterinsurgency manual. The high command, in fact, let counterinsurgency go to hell, exactly where they thought it deserved to rest in peace, and were focused instead on preventing Soviet armies from pouring through Germany’s Fulda Gap (something they were conveniently never likely to do). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. military would continue to focus for some years on Colin Powell’s doctrine of overwhelming force, decisive victory, and quick exit.

Then, of course, Iraq happened and decisive victory (“mission accomplished”) soured into decisive disaster. It was at this moment, in 2006, that Generals Petraeus and James “Mad Dog” Mattis (now respectively Afghan war commander and head of Centcom) dusted off the old, failed Vietnam-era counterinsurgency doctrine and made it sexy again. They oversaw the writing of a whole new guidebook for the Army and Marines, 472 pages of advice that even got its own (university press) trade edition, and became the toast of Washington and the Pentagon.

So, after being buried and disinterred, COIN, as its known, is once again the reigning monarch of American war-fighting doctrines as the Pentagon prepares for one, two, three Iraqs or Afghanistans — and the scandal is that (surprise, surprise!) it’s not working. This should, of course, hardly have been news. The history of counterinsurgency warfare isn’t exactly a success story, or our present COINistas wouldn’t have taken their doctrine largely from failed counterinsurgency wars in Vietnam and Algeria, among other places. It’s not so encouraging, after all, when the main examples you have before you are defeats.

Our generals might have better spent their time studying the first modern war of this sort. It took place in early nineteenth century Spain when the Islamic fundamentalists of that moment — Catholic peasants and their priests — managed to stop Napoleon’s army (the high-tech force of the moment) in its tracks. Just check out Goya’s “Disasters of War” series, if you want to see how grim it was. And it’s never gotten much better.

Looked at historically, counterinsurgency was largely the war-fighting option of empires, of powers that wanted to keep occupying their restive colonies forever and a day. Of course, past empires didn’t spend much time worrying about “protecting the people.” They knew such wars were brutal. That was their point. As George Orwell summed such campaigns up in 1946 in his essay “Politics and the English Language”: “Defenseless villagers are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set afire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.” The rise of anti-colonialism and nationalism after World War II should have made counterinsurgency history. Certainly, there is no place for occupations and the wars that go with them in the twenty-first century.

Unfortunately, none of this has been obvious to Washington or our leading generals. Of course, if they can rewrite the Army’s counterinsurgency manual for a new century, any of us can, so let me offer my one-line rewrite of their 472 pages. It’s simple and guaranteed to save trees as well as lives: “When it comes to counterinsurgency, don’t do it.”

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Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books),


has just been published this month. He discusses the book in a TomCast video that can be viewed here.

22 Responses

  1. Yikes!!!
    Don’t say stuff like that- if they stop doing Counterinsurgency they will start doing Full Spectrum Warfare (or whatever ridiculous title overwhelming killingpower has these days).
    Lets just hope that USA rides the Military Machine onto the scrapheap of Empire BEFORE too many more (tens/hundreds of) thousands of lives are so thoughtless and needlessly destroyed.

  2. Tom Engelhardt looks at the facts as scientists do. But the Pentagon knows it can only wage war as long as it can enthrall the American public by killing lots of bad guys, specially by using all the deadly technology that American taxpayers have funded. Americans don’t care about civilian casualties in Afghanistan: they want to see blood. McChrystal was failing because he wasn’t shedding enough blood. The same propagandists who equate Palestinians with terrorists and who make Americans think apartheid is glorious are painting all Afghanis as sympathizing with the Taliban. It goes hand in hand with breaking news about Karzai’s negotiating with the Taliban. The object is to justify the killing of innocent civilians. Petraeus was careful in Baghdad to contrate American firepower on the Sunnis and thus to achieve ethnic cleansing, another way of giving the American public an identified set of dead or defeated bad guys. In Afghanistan he sees no easy way of differentiating one group of Afghanis from another, so if he’s to slake the bloodthirstiness of the American public, he’ll need to increase the body count no matter who dies.

  3. If even half of what we were told about the old “evil empire” was true, I have to believe that whatever “rules of engagement” the Soviets operated under would have allowed them rather more freedom of action than our troops have. A fat lot of good it did them.

  4. I agree with much of this article, but it should really be directed at Obama and not the generals. After all, the generals are just trying to complete the mission Obama gave them. Obama is the commander in chief and he is the one who decided to do COIN in Afghanistan.

    So maybe the article should be titled: Advice to President Obama

  5. Didn’t Engelhardt enthusiastically endorse Obama even AS Obama was promising to escalate the Afghan War? I’m glad he came to his senses.

  6. Sorry to see Tom Engelhardt get it so wrong: bad advice based on bad history. He is wrong about everything he writes, from Napoleon’s troubles with the Spanish ulcer, through Westmoreland’s failure to even try counterinsurgency in Vietnam, to the so-called “problems” with the rules of engagement in Afghanistan. His advice, “Don’t do it!” begs the question but doesn’t answer it.

    Tom Collier

    • The link of ‘Ted in Toronto’ (see above) tells the most sensible story I have seen in this blog. I recommend it to everyone. Please click it there and read.

      • Guys, if this is the West’s best bet, I pity you, even though I do not pity Afghans. They know better – such “ghost help” could be well-intended, but it is futile till the end of occupation. Tell NATO go home and THEN try to help, if you really want.

  7. Sounds like Sherman and Sheridan during the American Civil War. This was the starve the south campaign.

  8. you can’t decide how to do it, until you define why to do it.

  9. A couple of things up-front; the two main reasons for our incursion in Afghanistan are:
    1) Strategic Placement (i.e., the establishing of self-contained “super-bases”, which we will never leave and which we now have in both Iraq and Afghanistan, to position us militarily on the doorstep of our both emerging rival, China (possibly India) and our old rival, Russia)
    2) To at least influence, if not control, not the supply of gas and oil in the region, but the movement (“Pipelinestan”) of those commodities.
    Everything else is window dressing, an excuse. This is all a very integral part of the “New Great Game” and none of it is ever going to go away ever again.

    Next, the very reason that insurgency is so effective is that insurgents find no reason to “play by the rules” and most “developed” nations feel the need to at least pretend that they do.
    Even when, as one respondent pointed-out with his/her reference to Russia’s activities in Afghanistan, the developed nation might feel less onus to play by the rules, insurgency is still very effective because the forces involved are by definition totally elusive. If the war starts going badly, simply hide your weapons and go farm poppies, rice, or whatever until the opposition looses interest and then gather-up the weapons and start all over again.
    If you want to win against insurgents, you might bring in the current crop of Sri Lankian military leaders who just recently did such a fine job of finally eradicating those pesky Tamil Tigers. At the same time, they accomplished a very effective population control program by shelling to pieces the local populace along with the insurgents.
    I spent 14 months “humping the boonies” as an infantry squad leader in ’68 and ’69. We had a “hearts and minds” campaign in effect then as well. Where I was, our take on the program was that we were going to “blow their minds and rip out their hearts”. Everyone can see just how well that worked-out.
    All the above is to say: they, the insurgents (any insurgents anywhere) aren’t going to go away and we (the developed world) are never going to win against an insurgency; not in the long-run anyway. Accommodation in some form is the only workable answer.
    But what everyone seems to be missing is that “the powers-that-be” don’t want this to be over for various economic (it’s all making a lot of people a lot of money, our money) and strategic reasons. In fact, aside from a bunch of grumbling from some probably very “unpatriotic” pains-in-the-butt, the whole enterprise has been working out pretty well indeed! If you see the big picture, that is.

  10. gotta tell ya. I think Tom’s head is pretty well embedded (he clearly does not understand history or the military very clearly), and the majority of the posters here are worse. if you think that it is a good idea to allow festering holes that allow terrorist cells and worse to develop unchecked, then you go live in that world. I would rather work to provide the security to allow a people to crawl out from under their problem regimes and let them regain control of their country. has this been done in a particularly ham-handed way by Mr. Bush, and more recently (even even more incompetently) by Mr. Obama? yes, but that is not the point. the point is that if you don’t make a stand, and fight for the right ideas, pretty soon you can’t even try because every pissant who wants to make a mess of a free society can step right up and do it. gotta take the fight to them, or they’ll bring it to us.

    • You have a treat in store for you, all by yourself. Read and meditate on this poem by Edmund Lear:

      The Akond of Swat
      Who, or why, or which, or what, Is the Akond of SWAT?

      Is he tall or short, or dark or fair?
      Does he sit on a stool or a sofa or a chair,
      or SQUAT,
      The Akond of Swat?

      Is he wise or foolish, young or old?
      Does he drink his soup and his coffee cold,
      or HOT,
      The Akond of Swat?

      Does he sing or whistle, jabber or talk,
      And when riding abroad does he gallop or walk
      or TROT,
      The Akond of Swat?

      The rest of the poem at:
      link to wonderingminstrels.blogspot.com

      The Akond of Swat was one of those people in the North-West Territories in India during the British Raj, a thorn in the side of the British Raj and all his works. The British Empire never got rid of him; he never got rid of the British Empire – until said British Empire was so worn down by fighting all the other empires, that it got rid of itself.

      So who or what was the Akond of Swat? He was frequently in the news, otherwise Lear would not have written in such scathing terms of this paranoia the papers were spreading.

  11. The Guardian back in the 1930s had a very interesting cartoon on the Italian invasion of Ethiopia – a picture of a African village, with mothers looking after their children, cows and goats feeding, other activities, with the caption at the bottom: Barbarism, or something of the sort. The next frame showed a plane roaring above, with all the huts turned into smoking holes in the grounds, bodies lying everywhere, and the caption read: Civilization.

    Does the cartoon need updating?

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