Defense & National Security

Rules of engagement reevaluation much needed

Rules of engagement reevaluation much needed

Karen Vaughn was just a military mom from Florida until the day, just over a year ago, when she learned her son, Navy SEAL Team 6 member Aaron Vaughn, had been killed when his Chinook helicopter crashed over Afghanistan.

Then, she became an investigator.

The Aug. 6, 2011 crash, later determined to be caused by Taliban rocket-propelled grenade fire, claimed the lives of all 38 American and Afghan troops aboard, including 21 other members of the SEALs. In loss of life, it was the greatest tragedy in the history of U.S. special operations.

“In initial days after the crash, all we did was grieve for several months, and then we started asking questions,” Vaughn told Human Events.

As more detailed reports emerged about the incident, she wanted to know specifically why any of the U.S. aircraft circling the area had not laid down pre-assault fire as the Chinook was fired on that might have eliminated the insurgent who fired the RPG.

Vaughn said the events leading to the helicopter shootdown were only one example of a problem her son found systemic: rules of engagement that hindered American and coalition forces from adequately defending themselves, particularly in a war in which it frequently isn’t clear who the enemy is until he opens fire.

“You don’t know who’s who,” she said. “You don’t know who the enemy is. Aaron didn’t know who the enemy was.”

It’s not the first time a call has gone up for a comprehensive reform to military rules of engagement, which were updated with the Afghanistan counterinsurgency push around 2009 to become increasingly restrictive.

Earlier this year, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) called for the creation of an evaluation board to consider violations of rules of engagement in light of the American troops who get sent home to the U.S. facing murder charges for attempting to protect themselves or their units downrange.

“Green-on-blue” attacks

The recent trend of “green-on-blue” attacks in which Afghan soldiers or security forces have fired on and killed the American and coalition troops they serve with, prompting a scale-back of joint operations announced last week, has made the issue prominent again.

Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) joined Franks at a press conference earlier this month asking for a reevaluation of these combat rules that left troops vulnerable.

Gohmert told Human Events that the move to suspend joint ops was too little, too late from an administration pushing hard to meet its own 2014 Afghanistan exit deadline.

“It’s taken the death of 51 of our best and brightest before this administration would even suspend the process that is getting people killed,” he said.

Jane Horton, who lost her husband, Army National Guardsman Spc. Christopher Horton, to enemy small arms fire in Afghanistan last September, said he had told her stories of ways he had been forced to innovate to protect himself from the Afghan forces he was supposed to fight alongside: for example, wearing a name tape that said Christopher instead of Horton, so that no one from the inside could point him out as a target for insurgents.

Horton said she too had heard from her husband about ways that existing rules of engagement kept allied troops constantly on the defensive, and the “winning hearts and minds” counterinsurgency strategy meant service members sometimes had to risk their own safety to avoid causing offense. She had heard stories of insurgents firing from mosques for just that reason, she said. Vaughn cited similar stories.

“America’s way too afraid of making any kind of wrong move, that they won’t let them defend themselves and they won’t let them actually fight,” Horton said. “They’re way more concerned about the Afghans than they are about our own men.”

During a trip to Afghanistan earlier this year, Gohmert said it was clear to him that troop morale was very low, at least for some. “They’re told they cannot fight, they cannot shoot unless there’s no civilians, no friendlies in the area,” he said. “While the commander in chief is trying to win the hearts and minds of the Afghans, he’s getting Americans killed.”

Gohmert said he would like to move in the House to defund the war in Afghanistan until the rules of engagement—particularly those that hobble the troops’ ability to fire until they are fired upon—can be changed. But for now, he said, he is trying to mobilize citizens to tell their leaders to pay attention to this issue.

“The only way it appears that we’ll get the rules of engagement fixed and we’ll get this sad counterinsurgency plan changed is to get the American people to burn up the phones to the White House, burn up the phones to Congress,” he said.

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