Rules of Engagement

Gen. David Petraeus

photo of Gen. David Petraeus

Before he became head of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus oversaw the rewriting of the U.S. Army's counterinsurgency manual. Here he explains why protecting civilians is the "top priority" in fighting an insurgency and talks about the constant "operational calculus" to balance protecting the population while protecting U.S. and coalition forces. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Aug. 1, 2007.

[In fighting the counterinsurgency in Iraq, how do you balance protecting the Iraqi population against protecting American forces?]

Protecting the population really has to be the top priority. It's job number one. In fact, as we embark on the new strategy here in recent months, that has been the emphasis, to try to improve the security for the population, certainly with Iraqi security forces, but that became our number one priority.

The challenge is, of course, how to do that while still going after the bad guys, taking them down, but doing it in a way, ideally, as we used to discuss in the 101st Airborne Division: How can you do this so that you can end up with fewer enemies at the end of each day or each week than you started with; in other words, that your actions don't create more enemies than you take off the streets? ...

If you, as an example, carry out what we sometimes refer to as dragnet or vacuum-cleaner operations -- in other words, you're going after, let's say, one or two targeted individuals, but you don't have the precision intelligence to do that, and you get a little bit impatient and go in and just vacuum up a number of individuals -- then you can often create more enemies than you actually detain, because you'll end up releasing the bulk of those individuals and keep only the one or two big fish whom you're after. So that is an example of that kind of technique.

Another one is that when you're responding to fire on your unit, the response has to be as precise as you can make it. It has to be as disciplined as you can make it. Occasionally that means you actually don't pull the trigger in return, because you're not sure exactly where the fire came from.

These are the types of issues that our soldiers wrestle with in a very, very challenging environment where the enemy is not always easily identified, where oftentimes what causes casualties is improvised explosive devices by a hidden enemy. ... And of course in a place like Iraq, it's also in an environment with a different culture, different language and often 120 degrees in body armor and Kevlar. ...

[How do you counter the insurgents' tactics?]

You counter it [with] good intelligence, by getting the locals to support your effort, to provide you information about when these bad guys move into their areas; by developing precise, actionable intelligence that enables you to literally sometimes knock on the door and take someone out instead of having to blow the door down and go in with all guns blazing; to interdict someone while they're traveling so that you avoid a situation where you have to do a deliberate attack into a crowded area, where you have to use force in a way that may certainly eliminate the enemy target but may also cause injury to innocent civilians.

[In May 2007, you sent out a letter (PDf file) urging troops to take the "moral high ground" in dealing with insurgents. Why did you send the letter?]

That letter was prompted by the results of a survey that was conducted here last fall. ... They caused some concerns, because among the answers that were provided by those who responded to the questionnaire, to the survey, were indications that some had actually carried out what we would see as violations of our values in treating civilians or treating detainees, and also a reluctance to report on violations that they had observed.

These were significant [enough] numbers that it got the attention of a number of us here, and so we sat down and decided that this is something that I needed to address as the commander of the force. I did, in fact, put out a letter that talked about the importance of living the values that we hold so dear; that if we believe that we occupy the moral high ground -- we want the civilians to believe that -- then of course we have to act in a way that does convince them that we are in a sense morally superior here, if you will, to the terrorists, to the insurgents, to, in this case, Al Qaeda in Iraq or their affiliates.

[What is the importance of maintaining the moral high ground?]

Maintaining the moral high ground, if you will, is actually important at every level: tactical, operational and strategic. At the tactical level, at the local level, of course, if you're seen as being less brutal, more concerned about the population, they are more likely to support you if they think there's a chance you can win. And that's an important distinction.

At a strategic level, it's important because it does not give the enemy strategically -- in this case, say, Al Qaeda central -- opportunities to criticize us throughout the world. That's very, very important as well, because a lot of this struggle is being carried out in the marketplace of ideas: It's being carried out in cyberspace, on the Internet, in newspapers, on television. [There are a] certain number of inevitable incidents. But the more that you can minimize those, and the more you can, again, avoid those, of course the better off you are.

[Did you get any response from the troops?]

Well, it was interesting. I actually got quite a few e-mails from soldiers, in fact, saying that they supported this; they'd read it. It's amazing, you know, in this Internet age that you're only a "Send" key away from any one of your soldiers of any rank. And the Internet does not always recognize the chain of command. ...

I think most of our soldiers take this responsibility very, very seriously, and I think it turned out to be a good reminder, a good review of why observing our values and our ethical standards is so important. I might point out, by the way, that the failure to do that, or, if you will, the actions by Al Qaeda in Iraq have actually backfired on them. They have become associated with really barbaric, indiscriminate acts of violence, killing Sunni and Shi'a and Kurd, killing women and children, actually killing Sunni Arabs coming out of a mosque in some cases.

They have not honored the religious customs in some of their actions. They have pushed Taliban-like ideology, which has not resonated. And the accumulated effect of that, but particularly the fact that they have been so indiscriminate in their violent acts, has backfired, and it has undermined the support that they may have enjoyed for a couple of years here. ...

[How pervasive is the problem of U.S. forces abusing Iraqis?]

The problem of abuse I don't think is too pervasive. Obviously there have been cases of it, and we continue to look for those cases. Soldiers have, in fact, in the wake of that letter, reported I think it is at least three cases of types of abuse.

The key really is our reaction. Our reaction has to be quick. It has to be in accordance with the law. We have to investigate it as rapidly as we can. And then really the most important response is to share the lessons that we have learned from each case, and to use each case as a reason to re-emphasize the importance of observing our values and our ethical standards.

[In the past, you've talked about how abuses, particularly Abu Ghraib, can damage our strategic goals in Iraq. How big a problem is that?]

Some of the problems that we have had have done enormous damage, frankly. They have tarnished our image in Iraq and worldwide, and I think that it is a problem that we're still dealing with. It has diminished, in a sense, the stock that people place in our word to some degree. ... So it is a significant problem for us.

[How do you balance the tension between wanting to take the time to properly investigate allegations of abuse and needing to respond quickly?]

Insurgents can take cases -- real or imagined -- and use them in their own propaganda. And I should note that the enemy has very, very effective propaganda and media operations. They are all over the Internet. They're all over TV channels. They do not tell the truth. They feel no compunction whatsoever to do that.

Frankly, they feel no more compunction about telling the truth than they do about observing any kind of the accepted norms of warfare as captured in, say, the Geneva Convention or the other traditions that have evolved over the years. So we're in a sense at a disadvantage in that regard.

We do try to tell the truth. Certainly we have to act very quickly when there is something that is inaccurate. Frankly, we do this on an almost daily basis, because in Iraq there are contending factions that may not be Al Qaeda. They may be a different political party that doesn't want, say, the ruling political party to look good and, again, think nothing of putting out false information or at the very least exaggerations of what they actually know to be true.

So that's a job for our public affairs officers, for our commanders, our staff officers, is to figure out what the truth is and then as quickly as possible to try to get the accurate report out. In fact, we work very hard when we have conducted operations where there have been civilian casualties. Let's say you're going after some target and you are shot at, and you have to respond, and it does cause, as they say, collateral damage; in other words, injuries to innocent civilians or to infrastructure. We try to put out a press release as quickly as we possibly can so that we can actually get that out there, the truth as we understand it. ...

[When abuses do occur, how do they get reported up the chain of command?]

Certainly you get reports all the time on potential abuses, so of course you have to investigate as quickly as you can. And we certainly attract those kinds of cases. There are not that many, frankly, and you actually can get a feel for that over time as a commander.

I think, in fact, what commanders spend a great deal of time doing is absorbing information, and that information gives them a sense of how things are going. You can literally, after you've been living this for a while, you can walk your way around a map and explain what's going on ... and point out where there are micro-fault lines; for example, where there is ongoing sectarian violence, where [Shi'a militia] Jaish al-Mahdi might be pushing one direction and Al Qaeda in Iraq pushing in the other. You can get a feel for that.

In the same way, you can get a feel for whether or not there are problems out there in terms of abuses. We have very, very substantial reporting mechanisms in place, and when something comes up that is probably the result of some kind of abuse, it can tend to jump off the page at you. I mean, you can tend to see this and sort of question how this took place: How did this particular amount of civilian deaths take place? And it is something that you then tend to put a bit of a microscope on as a result. ...

[Protecting civilians means additional risks for our forces. How do you balance force protection with protecting noncombatants?]

Well, again, the first mission has to be protecting the population in a situation like this. You know, to be brutally frank about it, if your overriding objective is to protect your own force, then you probably should not have deployed in the first place, because the only way to avoid risk to your forces is not to get involved. ...

Having said that, I do think that you employ tactics that help the population realize that you are there for them, for their good and with their interests at heart.

If you live among them, as opposed to just driving around and perhaps staying in big bases, they will develop a degree of confidence in you and actually will begin to support you to the point that, in fact, the level of violence is diminished, because they'll point out where the bad guys are; they'll tell you where the weapons caches are; they will alert you to impending threats.

We have seen that play out in various locations over time in Iraq. I would argue that, interestingly, that has taken place now, of all places, in Ramadi, Anbar province, which was until just a few months ago arguably the capital of the new caliphate of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a place that took enormous effort to clear. But once it was clear, because of the support of the population, because of the willingness now of the population to serve in legitimate Iraqi security forces, it is much more difficult for Al Qaeda to re-establish a foothold to carry out operations, to live among that population than it is for us, in fact.

[And how do you balance the need to capture or kill high-value targets with the need to protect civilians in the vicinity?]

Well, you're constantly doing what we call the operational calculus. That calculus is embodied in the question that you ask yourself: Will this operation take more bad guys off the street than it creates by the way it is conducted? That is a principal question that we constantly address.

There could be a time, I guess, where the target is so important that you're willing to take the risk of substantial collateral damage. But that is very, very rare indeed, and there are actually very few cases -- in fact, I can't think of any case where we have gone into an operation with that thought.

We specifically, in fact, put certain rules of engagement in place sometimes even for specific operations where we've really thought it through. We have a reasonable idea of where someone is, and we're trying to get the final 50 meters, as they say. We do think through those operations in quite a detailed manner to ensure that the conditions, certain conditions are set before we use so-called kinetic means -- before we drop a bomb, shoot a Hellfire missile, pull a trigger -- so that, again, the number of enemies created, if you will, because of some action that could be seen as indiscriminate by the local population, that number does not exceed the number of bad guys that you actually killed or captured. ...

In fact, when I was the commander in the 101st at one point in time, just because the threat was so low and we figured that we could deal with everything, just about, out there with direct fire or safe precision munitions off our attack helicopters, we made a decision that we would think very, very hard before we dropped a bomb. We actually subsequently lowered that threshold when there was a particular threat that emerged during Ramadan that caused casualties. That's the kind of thinking that does go on. ...

[Can you talk about the appropriate levels of firepower when fighting an insurgency -- say, how do you choose between ground forces or artillery or air strikes?

I cannot. I mean, you literally have to take each case and address it. You have to ask, what's the objective of the operation? What is the nature of the threat, the nature of the target you're going after? And again, what's the possibility of collateral damage?

When you're doing, say, the fight to Baghdad, on that particular operation as we fought our way north, there were a number of different what we call protected sites, and you had to review very, very carefully if you were going to attack a target that might threaten some of those protected sites.

There is right now, as an example, a slightly different phase, obviously, of the operation. We're not doing large, conventional combat. But there are protected mosques, and there are certain echelons of approval that are required before you enter certain mosques.

Now, you never, ever surrender the right of self-defense. That's a guarantee. It doesn't matter what is happening. But in some cases you might think a bit about that because, again, of the adverse impact of what could happen if there is damage to a particular shrine or something like that. ...

[Can you talk about the condolence payments given to the families of Iraqi civilians killed by the U.S. military?]

Well, they're very effective. Solatia payments, as they're called, these condolence payments are very much a part of the tradition and culture certainly of Iraq and I think throughout the region. ...

There are going to be civilian casualties. You have to go into an operation like this knowing that that is going to happen. It is inescapable and unavoidable. You can certainly do everything you can to minimize those types of injuries and deaths, to minimize damage to infrastructure and so forth, but there will be some, and over time you'd have to have a quick response to that. And the solatia payment for death or for injury, payments for damage -- you have to have a very rapid response capability.

The fact is that when we killed Uday and Qusay, Saddam's sons, in the city of Mosul, we eventually had to do substantial damage to the house in which they had located themselves. We were sure the family was already out. We had accounted for all that. We knew that the only people still in there were the two of them, a son and some security.

But nonetheless, because of the amount of shooting that they were doing -- they repulsed our efforts to go in and get them, the efforts to try to get them to surrender up front -- it was clear that they were not going to go without a substantial fight. And we eventually gave them a substantial fight and did in fact kill them, and in so doing caused substantial damage to the building [in] which they were located.

Because of their indiscriminate shooting outside and, again, some of our use of, at one point, attack helicopter munitions, we caused some damage in the neighborhood as well -- trampled yards, had vehicles all over, as you would imagine. We very quickly moved in with individuals who went door to door, asked if there had been any damage.

We eventually took down the entire house in which they had been located so that we did not pose a damage to people in the neighborhood, cleared it all completely, and, in fact, within a matter of some days, you wouldn't have recognized [it] other than that there was an empty lot [as a reminder of] what had taken place there. That, to some degree, [did] placate a number of the citizens in that area who felt as if they perhaps had been put upon a bit by the activity that took place in their neighborhood.

Again, this played out on numerous occasions. And the quicker you can do it, the more responsive you can seem to be. And of course the more concerned you are, the more valuable it is, and the more helpful it is to your operation. ...

[Can you talk about the difficulties of transitioning from conventional combat to the counterinsurgency strategy you've implemented?

Certainly when you make a transition from conventional major combat operation to counterinsurgency, that's a pretty substantial shift, particularly if you're in a situation now where the enemy is no longer conventional, or even somewhat irregular, as we faced during the fight to Baghdad.

On the fight to Baghdad, it was, you know, this is what the military does. This is tanks and guns blazing, close air support, tech helicopters, all the rest of that, seeking to destroy an enemy, and in some cases the bases from which the enemy was operating and fighting us. …

There's a certain mind-set when you're doing that, and I think the population noticed that that's ongoing. They are off the streets. This is fighting between, again, a conventional army and other relatively conventional forces.

Once you make that transition into counterinsurgency, the enemy, of course, is very, very different: much more elusive; does not stand and fight; tries to use the indirect approach; uses terror tactics, intimidation, kidnapping, extortion -- really becomes almost a Mafia-like extreme gang fighter in many instances; uses suicide car bombers, suicide vest bombers and other tactics that, again, cause this indiscriminate violence I've spoken of and is, again, a very difficult enemy to come to grips with. So [you must] first of all change your tactics to be much more precise; targeted intelligence becomes everything. You're constantly working to gain the information that can enable you to conduct precise operations, targeted operations, in which you can get the enemy you're after and not have to, again, cause damage to a number of others in which you are taking out more bad guys than you are creating by the way you're conducting the operation. ...

[Can you talk about the role and importance of commanders in preventing abuses?]

… Perhaps the most important task of a commander, particularly in this kind of operation, is to set the right tone. It's number 14 in my lessons learned in Iraq after a previous tour. … It means setting the right ethical tone. It means not winking and nodding or even being perceived to have shrugged off something that should in fact be aggressively pursued or investigated. It means not allowing the frustration that we all feel in this kind of endeavor at some time or other, or sometimes even the anger [that results], in a sense, among one's subordinates that there's an "anything goes" kind of approach to life.

I guess less serious than that, it means just even your attitude to the population. We used to talk a lot about the charm offensive, actually. ... We wanted to win over the population. We obviously wanted them to support us, not the insurgents. We wanted them on our side, to believe that we had their best interests at heart, that we truly did care about them and that we were sincere in that, which I think we were.

Our objective was to convince them of that sincerity. And it carried through even into waving from helicopters, waving from vehicles. It meant not pointing weapons at people unless you really thought that was necessary. In those days it meant not being like Toad in The Wind of the Willows, going through traffic -- you know, to observe the rules because we were trying to get others to obey the rules. If you want to re-establish the rule of law, a good way to do that is to start out by observing the law yourself. ...

So the setting-the-right-tone piece is of incalculable importance. And at the end of the day, if the commander does nothing else, he or she has to do that, set the right tone. ...

[We have been unable to obtain statistics from the military about the number of civilian deaths caused by our forces. Do you have ways of measuring how well we're avoiding civilian deaths?]

We certainly have on a daily basis our daily update that is provided to me. Each commander typically has something like that. There is a count of civilians killed and civilians wounded or injured. So we do track that very much. It is not our job, we don't believe, to release statistics on Iraqis in that regard, although I certainly have talked about on numerous occasions, in this position in particular, the statistics on sectarian deaths. ... It [is] something that we believe we can measure with a fair degree of precision. I know it sounds a bit macabre, but it's different from, say, just violence or what have you. We have quite a detailed definition of what events are included in what eventually becomes statistics on sectarian deaths.

It's important to me because, in fact, what we are trying to do in securing the population is right now at Iraq to tamp down the sectarian violence that caused such horrific damage here, particularly during the late fall and winter of 2006-2007. There was substantial sectarian displacement that took place during that time. The fact is there are 2 million Iraqis who have left the country and 2 million others estimated to have been displaced by this sectarian violence over time, not all just during that period. ...

Our units focus on these sectarian deaths because they obviously reflect the kind of violence that we are trying to prevent. We position our units in locations where they can try to literally sit on this type of violence initially with their Iraqi counterparts, then to try to stabilize the areas, and then over time try to find a solution in terms of security that is sustainable.

[Can you talk about the ethics training our forces undergo?]

Well, first of all, there's actually a required ethics and values training that is mandated by the different services in the U.S. military. ...

We even require the conduct of investigations in these training exercises so that individuals would be used to the fact that investigations are just a part of the landscape, so that it does not become something that, you know, "My God, my career is over because we're doing an investigation." It's something that should be an obligation. And the fact there's a certain threshold of damage, property damage or injuries, that automatically triggers an investigation here in Iraq, we try to replicate that in the United States at our training centers and in the one in Germany as well.

We also spend quite a bit of time on what are called "escalation of force" incidents. In Iraq, our soldiers do a fair amount of time on traffic control points, hasty checkpoints, in the conduct of cordon-and-search operations.

You have situations in this environment that are extremely challenging and tricky, because, remember, this environment includes suicide car bombers and suicide vest bombers, so literally any vehicle approaching at a high rate of speed could be a car bomb, and any person even could be a suicide vest bomber. We have to prepare our soldiers for these situations.

More importantly, leaders have an obligation to the so-called corporal, the individual who is [in charge of] handling the traffic control point, and they have to make a life-or-death decision in the blink of an eye as a vehicle speeds toward them. What we try to do in our training is help them learn how to [assess] a situation so that a vehicle has to slow down, it has to see a big sign that's lighted at night, or it has to drive through a barrier even. And it has to commit itself as being intent on damaging our soldiers or killing them, and therefore help the soldier make that decision and get the soldier as much time as possible before the decision to pull the trigger has to be made. ...

Now, it's very easy for me to brief that. It is much more challenging on the streets of Baghdad or some other city in Iraq where there's a lot of traffic on it, in a hasty situation where perhaps there's just been an explosion and so forth. But nonetheless, it is incumbent on us to do all that we can to prepare our soldiers for those situations. And our leaders do, in fact, try to do that, and we do, in fact, incorporate that in our Combat Training Center rotations, in our counterinsurgency seminars, and also in the home station training that's conducted before deployment to Iraq. ...

[How can incidents of abuse -- real or alleged -- play into insurgent propaganda? And how does that play into the battle for hearts and minds?]

Well, again, a case like Abu Ghraib can obviously be a real black eye for our force and for our effort. In fact, the insurgents will do all that they can to make it that. What we have to do in return is to show that we are different from the insurgents, from the terrorists, and that when we identify a violation of our standards, of our norms, our values, that we took legal action and that we took corrective action.

In fact, we have completely revamped our detainee operations, as an example. There's a two-star general in charge who does nothing but that. In fact, some of the best health care in Iraq is in our detention facilities, and we have had the International Red Cross inspect [them on] numerous occasions, [as well as] other organizations. And we believe that we are carrying out our responsibilities in a very humane way.

The field manual on interrogation techniques was published a year or so ago -- a very important statement, again, about our values and our standards. We subscribed to it; we practiced that. In fact, it has the force of law.

So we did learn some lessons very much the hard way. We did make mistakes. And we believe that we took corrective action in the wake of those incidents. That's what I talked about earlier, the importance of doing just that, and then, of course, certainly being sure that people know that you did that.

On the other hand, we also want to make sure that people know that when an Al Qaeda operative blows up 50 or 100 innocent Iraqis that that individual actually is probably applauded. In fact, his or her handiwork is put on the Web for all to see, and broadcast over and over with heroic music in the background -- so again, quite a distinction between the terrorists and we believe, in this case, the actions of our soldiers. ...

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posted february 19, 2008

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