A GENERAL SPEAKS OUT:
The Truth About the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
reprinted with permission of MBI/Zenith Publishing
© 2004 and © 2006 by Michael DeLong and Noah Lukeman
May not be downloaded, photocopied, distributed or excerpted without
permission of the author and publisher
consider it no sacrifice to die for my country. In my mind we came here to thank
that men like these have lived rather than to regret that they have died.”
--General Gorge S. Patton Jr.
speech at an Allied cemetery in Italy, 1943
began as a typical Monday morning at CentCom. General Franks was in the Middle
East, so I was in charge of our headquarters in Tampa. I had already run the morning meeting, gotten briefed
by my men, and now I had Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on the phone and
was filling him in on the events of the day before. It was relatively
Suddenly, one of my aides approached me. He handed me a piece of paper, not wanting to interrupt my conversation. I knew it must be important.
I held an “urgent” message from Current Operations, which meant that something was going down at that very moment in the battlefield and it was sensitive enough to require Rules of Engagement (ROE) approval. As I glanced over the paper, I realized the magnitude of the situation. I immediately knew that this was something I’d need to run by Rumsfeld. I interrupted him.
“Excuse me, Mr. Secretary, but something’s just landed that you need to know about.”
“A speedboat has been spotted racing out of a Pakistani port. Our men hailed it on the radio, and it didn’t respond. There are Coalition ships in the area, and they decided not to fire any warning shots. As of this moment, it’s speeding away, and it has already reached international waters.”
We both knew what this meant. From the beginning of the Afghan war, we had known that al-Qaeda operatives would try to flee. We knew they had only two real options of escape: small aircraft and speedboats--so we watched the skies and the ports very carefully. We were especially on the lookout for any small craft speeding out of Pakistan. This fit the description. If we let this craft go, it could very well be Mullah Omar or Osama bin Laden on that boat.
Additionally, the boat had already reached international waters, which complicated things infinitely. If the boat had been within twelve miles of the Pakistani shore, it would have been in Pakistani waters, and we could have easily forced it to stop. But once it crossed the twelve-mile mark the waters were international, and the rules were no longer clear. That meant we had to follow our ROE. These called for a warning by radio, and if that failed, a warning shot over the bow, and if that failed--nothing else. Our men would have to go to a higher authority in order to escalate the conflict. That’s why they were calling me.
Every war and conflict that the United States enters has its own Rules Of Engagement. Contrary to what most people think, the U.S. military does not have a complete license to kill, even in wartime. We are not a barbaric state, and we do not enter any war with the intention of unilaterally killing anything in our path. We go out of our way to spare civilian lives, to keep those who are not in the war out of it--sometimes even at the expense of risking our own soldiers’ safety. We do this by creating strict rules to which our soldiers must adhere. These rules govern when they can fire, when they cannot; what type of force they can use, what type they cannot; what they can do in particular situations, and what they cannot. The reason for this is that battles can become very confusing very quickly, and a common soldier needs simple rules to guide him, to know when he is or is not allowed to kill--and who is and is not the enemy.
The Rules of Engagement were drafted by our CentCom staff and approved by General Franks and myself. They were then sent to the Department of Defense for approval. Once approved, they were final. If we needed to override them, we needed approval from Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld, in turn, would need to get approval from the president, depending on the magnitude of the situation.
We also had our own lawyers at CentCom, advising us every step of the way. Beside me throughout the incident was Captain Shelly Young. She was there to constantly explain the subtleties to us. She would say, “Here’s what the Rules of Engagement really mean.” There are complex international laws that must be considered--the law of land warfare, the law of the sea--and the lawyer has to protect the command, and to ensure that what you’re doing has a legal look.
“Are you sure it’s al-Qaeda?” Rumsfeld asked.
“No, we’re not sure. But intel leads us to believe it could be.”
My aide handed me another sheet of paper.
“Mr. Secretary,” I said, “I have Admiral Moore on the other line. If it’s all right with you, I’ll talk to him, have him fill me in, and then call you right back.”
I hung up and picked up with Admiral Moore.
Admiral Willy Moore was a three-star admiral, commander of the entire 5th fleet, stationed in Bahrain. He was the best war-fighting admiral in the Navy.
“How reliable is this intel?” I asked him.
“Very,” he answered. “One of my admirals called it in. His ship is 150 miles from the location. He has planes patrolling, one of which spotted it.”
“What ships do we have in the vicinity?”
“French and Canadian coalition ships, and one of ours. We have a fourteen-person Marine attachment on board the U.S. ship commanded by a First Lieutenant Zinni.” That would be Zinni’s son--Tony Zinni, that is, a four-star general and the previous commander of CentCom, whom General Franks had replaced.
“Do you think it’s al-Qaeda?” I asked.
“Let me talk to the secretary.”
I put him on hold and got back on the line with Rumsfeld.
“He confirmed it,” I said to Rumsfeld.
There was a pause.
“What are our options?” Rumsfeld asked. “Can we stop them?”
“We can shoot out the engines. But they’re moving so fast, we only have one shot at this. And it’s an open-hulled craft. If we shoot out the engines, chances are someone might get hit.”
This was our first ROE incident in international waters, and we both knew the ramifications of a wrong decision. It couldn’t have come at a worse time, or in worse waters. At that time, tensions were at a peak between Pakistan and India--the two countries were literally on the brink of a nuclear war. We needed both sides to stay neutral, not only to help us fight in Afghanistan, but more importantly, to prevent a possible nuclear catastrophe. In fact, I had been spending nearly all my time in those days on the phone with Pakistani senior staff, doing what I could to calm the Pakistani side while the State Department worked India. Tensions were high, and making a mistake in these waters was the last thing we wanted to do.
Rumsfeld cleared his throat.
“Do what you have to do.”
I picked up the phone with the waiting admiral. It was twilight in Afghanistan.