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The Rules of Engagement

To bomb any Afghan target deemed "sensitive," commanders in the field must get permission from officials in the U.S. Welcome to the new age of military micromanagement.

April 21, 2002|WILLIAM M. ARKIN | William M. Arkin is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and an adjunct professor at the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Airpower Studies. He is also a consultant to a number of nongovernmental organizations.

WASHINGTON — When bombing began in Afghanistan last year, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld retained the right to personally approve attacks on any and all "sensitive" targets. By the second day of bombing, approvals by Rumsfeld had proved unworkable, and authority over sensitive targets was handed down to the Florida-based commander in chief of the U.S. operation, Army Gen. Tommy Franks. In November, Franks got permission to delegate it a half-step further down--to a staff operations officer in Florida.

But at no time, even today, has the ostensible commander of the air war, who is based in Saudi Arabia, had the authority to attack the broad array of targets classified as "sensitive" without prior approval from Washington or Florida.

Welcome to the new age of micromanagement.

For many in the Bush administration, the Afghanistan war has been an unqualified success. But what's happening now in upper reaches of the Pentagon gives new force to the old saying that you learn more from defeat than from victory.

When it comes to "lessons learned," Operation Enduring Freedom may prove to have been a dangerous victory. That the war's many-layered control system likely got in the way of a far more decisive outcome may be forgotten: What will be remembered is simply our quick routing of the Taliban.

Because of that victory, questions about micromanagement are apparently unwelcome at the top--despite the fact that most of the senior Taliban leadership, as well as the bulk of Al Qaeda forces, got away.

No one wants to hear about the cost of having battlefield decisions made on the other side of the world by busy officials who have no direct feel for what is happening. Complaints are dismissed as military petulance or--worse--as uniformed officers challenging civilian control.

If the issue of micromanagement is not addressed, however, the future cost could be high. The control system employed in the air war in Afghanistan will shape the system used next time. And carrying that system forward against a far more capable foe like Iraq could have a high price, both in reduced military effectiveness and in risk to American lives.

The situation is ripe with irony. Up to now, micromanagement of combat has been associated primarily with Vietnam, when President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, spent hours poring over maps to personally select targets for U.S. warplanes.

Republicans vowed to leave the fighting of subsequent wars to the professionals. The first President Bush did just that, developing a control system for the air war in Desert Storm that protected wider national interests but trusted uniformed military in the field to make targeting decisions.

What is happening today, as one senior officer put it, is "back to the future," a return to the Vietnam-era distrust of military commanders and excessive involvement by Washington in daily decisions. His concerns about micromanagement were shared by a number of senior Defense Department and military officers interviewed for this piece.

The high degree of Washington oversight is reflected both in highly classified "rules of engagement" and in presidential directives governing Operation Enduring Freedom, some of which I have seen, while others have been read to me or described in detail by senior officials with access.

Part of the problem is that, with ultimate target approval lying half a world and many time zones away, numerous decisions on launching attacks got bogged down until it was too late. Also, with the CIA's Predator reconnaissance drones sending real-time imagery to both the air command center in Saudi Arabia and to U.S. Central Command (CentCom) in Florida, time-consuming discussions back and forth were almost inevitable.

"The problem was that the CIA, Florida and CentCom all thought they were choking the chicken," one exasperated officer said.

The Washington Post, for example, reported a case in which Air Force targeters had identified a column of Taliban reinforcements moving over open ground, but CentCom worried that the movement seemed so obvious it might be a trick. As the Rules of Engagement were written, that was enough to scuttle the attack.

Rules of engagement are formal documents that outline when, where, how, why and against whom force may be used. They also spell out restrictions on its use because of political, diplomatic or legal concerns.

These rules are some of the most closely held elements of any war, since knowing our rules of engagement can help an enemy. Some are so sensitive that they are only conveyed to a commander in person or by secure telephone.

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