Volume 101 - Issue 6 Georgetown Law Journal

Standards of Engagement: Rethinking Rules of Engagement to More Effectively Fight Counterinsurgency Campaigns

To better arm the boots-on-ground combat soldier engaged in COIN (counterinsurgency) operations, leaders at every step in the chain of command must reframe their ROE (rules of engagement) policies to, first, acknowledge the need for nuanced, flexible rules in the complex COIN environment and, second, formally acknowledge the definite preference of COIN leaders against the use of force in COIN campaigns.
This Note proposes such a reframing, arguing that the United States military should adopt a “standards of engagement” regime, whereby soldiers’ use-of-force actions are governed by general, outcome-based “standards,” not specific, prescriptive “rules.” This Note then recommends augmenting these standards of engagement with “codes of practice,” or nonmandatory, general guidelines designed to gently nudge the soldier’s decision-making process, constantly reminding the soldier of the relevant “counterinsurgency paradoxes” that have already been disseminated in the COIN doctrine adopted by the United States Army and Marine Corps.
Explaining the rationale behind these intertwined recommendations is the purpose of this Note. To lay the groundwork for the discussion of the typical problems and possible solutions for modern ROE, Part I of this Note will briefly describe what COIN is and how it differs from conventional operations. The focus of this Part’s analysis will be on differences that significantly affect how leaders should think about their ROE policies. Part II of this Note will take the discussion a step further, explaining what ROE are, how they are typically developed, and problems that commonly plague the ROE policies used in COIN campaigns. Finally, Part III of this Note will use these COIN lessons and ROE problems to develop recommendations for the improvement of future COIN ROE policies, suggesting two practical ROE modifications that promise to influence the use-of-force decision-making process for both the strategic leader and the individual soldier enmeshed in an often ugly, always dangerous COIN fight.

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