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A Ruse By Any Other Name…

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Lt. Gen. Michael Oates is worried that excessive adherence to war law might be undermining military effectiveness in Afghanistan:

Commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan have been reluctant to launch more secret operations because of an excess of caution about violating military rules and international law, a top Army officer says.

The tentative approach to “deception operations” has cost the U.S. military opportunities to weaken the enemy without firing a shot, said Army Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, commander of the Pentagon’s task force to counter improvised explosive devices.

The anti-IED task force has advocated dismantling insurgent networks as an effective way to combat improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

Earlier this year, Marines in Afghanistan’s Helmand province read announcements over a loudspeaker to trick insurgents into thinking their specially modified roadside bombs couldn’t be found by U.S. minesweepers.

As a result, the insurgents didn’t bother hiding them well and Marines were able to easily find the bombs, said Marine Maj. Don Caporale, an information operations officer.

“We started finding all kinds of mines with this (modification), which, of course, was a complete hoax,” Caporale said.

Still, Oates said in an interview, “there’s a Gordian knot of law, regulation, procedure and risk aversion. We have got to do some due diligence on this problem.”

He said the main problem is a fear of violating regulations that govern when and how the military can use deception. “Mostly it is a risk aversion, in my opinion,” Oates said in an e-mail.

Such regulations and international treaties include provisions forbidding the faking of surrender to draw out an enemy and then kill them, according to the Pentagon’s guidelines on military deception.

Oates’ comments reflect a broader concern among commanders that the U.S. military is too cautious when it comes to deception.

Some might say it’s a sign of a well-disciplined military that it bends over backward to follow war law even when it’s hard. Only this wouldn’t be a case of following war law, because the Geneva Conventions actually don’t outlaw deception at all. Indeed, both the Hague and Geneva treaties acknowledge that ruses – efforts to deceive the enemy on points of fact – are an indispensable part of warfare and are permissible.

Perfidy is different. In those cases – such as feigning surrender only to gain a lethal advantage over one’s enemy – the protections of the laws themselves, and the code of conduct among warriors on which they depend, are used as a weapon. These acts are outlawed because they undermine war law itself.

None of the tactics described in the USA Today report on Afghanistan would fall into that category. So what are US troops so worried about?

Perhaps this is a case where the military has shot itself in the foot by failing to train GIs sufficiently in LOAC basics – much less make communicating actual treaty obligations to the public and media a cornerstone of its PR strategy.

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