John Bernard is a twenty-six year veteran of the United States Marine Corps, and in his retirement blogs at Let Them Fight or Bring Them Home. His mission is to highlight the absurd rules of engagement imposed upon members of the U.S. military, and to expose the insane and dangerous policies of our political leaders.
Last week Vlad Tepes interviewed Mr. Bernard on skype. Unfortunately, the sound quality of the resulting video is so low that it is difficult to hear it clearly. With Vlad’s help I transcribed the entire conversation, and am posting it below. To improve the flow of the narrative, I edited out all the hesitations, placeholders, self-corrections, and repeated words and phrases.
John Bernard is an example of the extraordinary quality we have come to expect from American soldiers, sailors, and Marines. He is intelligent, lucid, well-informed, and devastating in his analysis. If only our political leaders would pay heed to him.
Interview With John Bernard
July 26, 2010
Your principal concerns are the rules of combat that make the war in Afghanistan dangerous and absurd. Is that correct?
Yes. You look at the rules of engagement as a stand-alone doctrine, or a stand-alone directive, then it’s an almost impossible fight.
You can’t discuss the rules of engagement without discussing strategy that bears that. In every strategy — I don’t care whether it’s on the battlefield or if it’s on the streets with the police force — everybody that bears arms is governed by a specific set of rules that tell them when they can engage whoever it is that they have the authority to engage.
In this particular case, the strategy changed somewhere around 2009 to almost exclusively counterinsurgency doctrine. And counterinsurgency doctrine really is run very much more tightly than the police on the street. So rules of engagement are intentionally tight to allow them to operate under the doctrine of counterinsurgency.
Can you give us a couple of examples of the rules of combat as they now apply in Afghanistan?
Absolutely. The rules of engagement — and again, this is a fluid document, it’s a fluid set of rules. They do change occasionally. The only thing people need to understand is that there’s nothing published, or nothing for public consumption. They reside inside a secret directive. So even getting this to the floor of Congress is difficult, because people who hold the keys, shall we say, to the chest of secrets do not want to let that directive out.
So instead all we can do is relay what we’ve been given by mouth, and we know that that’s correct, because that’s frankly the way the average soldier and Marine receives those orders as well. They may be written in some kind of localized document, but you’re not going to get them in anything that comes out of the Pentagon.
So, to give you an idea: when they were first released last year — released publicly, sometime around June of last year — one of the more egregious ones was that there weren’t going to be any more surprise night searches of civilian compounds within Afghanistan. I mean, that’s basically that you have to tell everybody in advance that you’re coming in to search their house, search a specific house, that you suspected of carrying weapons or materials that might be used by the Taliban.
Again: this is a war zone. This isn’t downtown Los Angeles. And even if it was, this particular Los Angeles does not reside within the borders of the United States. So it shouldn’t be governed by the Constitution; it should be governed by the rules of war.
You certainly have a legitimate concern that if somebody is either hiding Taliban, hiding weapons, hiding materials for war that can be used against you, you have a right — you’d think you have a right — to go in and find out what those are. So this thing basically set up the circuits for failure.
– – – – – – – – –
It then got further degraded to say that if you were going to do a search on a civilian home, you couldn’t do it at night, it couldn’t be a surprise, and — oh, by the way — Americans couldn’t do the search! The Taliban turned to, if Americans were going to search a house, they had to have either ANA or ANP [Afghan army or police] with them, and then they have to do the search. Furthermore, if it’s a house that is known to only have women, it can’t be men, it has to be females.
I mean, you’re setting up a set of rules that, frankly, if a police officer walked up to your house with a search warrant, he’s got far more authority to search your house than soldiers and Marines do in a war zone in Afghanistan.
Another one is, if you see an insurgent shooting at you, and he drops his weapon, you can’t shoot at him anymore. Now the reason this is particularly important is that under normal circumstances, people think that if he drops his weapon, he’s giving up. But this is not the case. Remember, this is not a disciplined, uniformed force. This is a group of civilians that don’t fight under any specific set of rules. They certainly don’t enforce or observe the Geneva Conventions. So what you’re talking about are Taliban who are warned that we won’t shoot at them if they drop their weapons. So they shoot at you — even if they kill some of you, you can’t return fire if they’ve dropped their weapon. What they’ve learned to do is drop their weapon, sometimes run, sometimes walk away from the weapon — giving obscene gestures in the process — and then go to a completely different location, pick up a completely different weapon, and start fighting again, start shooting again.
As long as they’ve got the weapon in hand, and you can engage them while they’ve got the weapon, you can shoot — unless, of course, there are civilians around, and this is the big critical issue here. If there are any civilians in the area, and you are receiving fire, you can’t return fire, under any circumstances. What you have to do is remove yourself from the engagement. And then it says, “if it’s safe to do so”, which suggests that if you’re getting some pretty accurate fire, you have to kind of wait until they run out of ammunition before you move. In other words, they’re allowing you not to die. I thought that was very kind of them.
Supporting fires, air, artillery, any kind of indirect fire weapons, including what we call organic weapons systems, 60-millimeter mortar, 81-millimeter mortar, any direct-fire systems we might have, SMAW rockets, M203 grenades, even the 5.56 rifles, the M-16 family of weapons, the M240 Gulf machine gun, [Mark 19] grenade launchers, all the things that are organic to grunts in the field, all those things you can’t use if there are any civilians around that might get hurt.
Understand that the Taliban hide in civilian territory. They’ve learned to do this — they were doing this before we came up with these ridiculous rules — and they’re exploiting it to their advantage now.
So, effectively what we’ve done is, we’ve taken one of the things you do with a force, which is to define the battlespace so you control it, and we’ve given control of the battlespace to the enemy. It means they can kill us, and we can’t kill them.
And if you can’t kill ‘em — and oh, by the way, when you pull ‘em in, when we take them in, there is a catch-and-release program, where you can only hold them for X number of hours before you have to release them. In other words, if you can’t feed them to the rear, so that they can be questioned and determine whether or not they are a problem, you can only hold them for so many hours. And that’s changed, and I can’t legitimately tell you what that’s changed to, but not that long ago it was 24 hours. They kicked it to 72; I’m not sure where it is right now. It might be 96.
In addition, those that we’ve chosen to hold, our great friend Hamid Karzai, in the last couple of weeks has released somewhere around a hundred Taliban back into civilian territory, on the promise that they wouldn’t be bad guys anymore.
So this whole thing is ludicrous; it’s insanity. It’s completely steeped against our guys. If our guys manage to shoot somebody in violation of one of these rules, they’re prosecuted. Good deal.
Who set these rules of engagement?
The rules of engagement are established well above battalion level, well above, frankly, the division or even MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit] level. In this particular case they were actually set by General McChrystal, but they were blessed from somewhere above.
The argument that I’ve made right along is that these things don’t happen in a vacuum. You don’t send a military out onto the field of battle without a very specific plan, without a very specific goal. And that goal emanates from Washington D.C. and specifically from the White House. So, while we were working under one set of rules under President Bush — and I’m not going to give him any sway in this; things had started to deteriorate under him, as late as 2008 — they certainly went downhill a lot faster under President Obama.
Now, I don’t believe there was anything in President Bush’s background or belief or hope, anything suggesting that he gave sway to Afghan civilian lives over American military lives, but that is certainly the case under President Obama. So what he does is he turns around and gives out he would call his “Commander’s Intent”. The Commander’s Intent Statement is something that resides in the five-paragraph order. The five-paragraph order is put together at the level of Pentagon. But those things again don’t happen on their own; they are in response to the Commander’s Intent. The President of the United States says, “I want to do this, and I want it done this way. Go for it — write an order and let me take a look at it.”
So the orders that were rewritten under General McChrystal were probably significantly different than they were a year prior. Certainly the rules of engagement got a lot tighter.
So that’s where the stuff starts, is with the President’s vision. That’s when you start looking at what the President has done in his first few months. You say, “What’s up with this guy? What’s he thinking?” Going to predominantly Muslim countries and apologizing for being American, essentially. Apologizing for things we can’t even begin to imagine. Making comments that the United States is not a Christian nation, which those of us who are indeed Christian would have a hard time arguing against that. I don’t think that every person who claims to be a Christian is, but certainly we [have] a Christian ethic, in our writings and in our laws.
And then further going and saying to some people in those communities that we are in fact a Muslim nation; we see things through the eyes of this peaceful Islamic belief system. It’s just ludicrous. The point is, when you follow him, what he typically believes, or holds in his heart, is to do well by the Muslim community of the world, even if that means that America is going to pay a horrendously bloody price for it.
He clearly does not have the better [interests] of American troops in his heart.
The government of Afghanistan has arrested many people and sentenced some to death for converting to Christianity or other breaches of sharia law. Do you have any thoughts on what sort of values the government there should hold before we fight for them? What sort of values should we be fighting for?
Again, this is exclusively as an American. And I am unapologetic about this.
We should be first concerned about Americans. It’s as simple as that.
I think any country that sends its troops into harm’s way without that country’s interests first, frankly, is not doing its service members any good; it’s not doing any good by its country and even by its citizenry.
That includes Canada. So if Canada has a problem with the way things are run, it ought to pull its troops out. If it likes this whole peacekeeping mission and this notion that you can rebuild a nation and change hearts and minds, then go forth and produce.
As far as I’m concerned as an American, I believe that’s a fool’s mission. And it’s not our constitutional or moral responsibility to change the way Afghans think or the way they live.
I frankly don’t care how they live. If they want to eat sand and pray to the moon, go for it! But when you turn around and pull out a sword and put it to my neck and tell me you’re going to cut my head off because I don’t want to eat sand and pray to the moon, I got a problem with that.
And that’s where this thing is. The idea of having Americans fighting on the plains of Afghanistan should be exclusively for the purposes of American security. Someone argued that somehow or another transforming Afghanistan into a 7th-century country, maybe a 12th-century country, somehow or another you’re going to change their hearts and minds.
The reality is they live the way they do because of their doctrine. They’re satisfied with this. And if they’re not, it’s Afghan responsibility to lift themselves out of the plight they’ve gotten themselves into. There’s no evidence they intend to do that, and there’s evidence to the contrary, and you just mentioned some.
If a person decides to take on Christianity as his belief system, if he decides that Allah is not God, and he decides to start praying to God, then they’re then going to chop his head off and throw him into the dung heap. What are we doing even daring to suggest that we’re allied with people like that?
We’ve got no business being allied with Karzai. I understand we stuck him in there after we just [ousted] the Taliban. That was a mistake. We’re partially responsible for the rise of the Taliban — look how well that turned out!
We’ve got no business doing this. Everything we should be doing should be exclusively for American security. And if that helps secure Canada, or England, or France, or anybody else in the world, and they want to come in on our slipstream while we’re doing it, that’s fantastic.
But trying to dumb-down our national interest to what somebody else may envision is insane; it’s unconstitutional, and, frankly, it’s immoral. You don’t send military forces helter-skelter across the globe to do things for some yet undefined purpose.
Canadian journalist Terry Glavin, who has embedded himself with Canadian troops in Afghanistan many times, feels that Iran has massively growing influence in Kabul, and that the best way to fight Iran is to maintain troops in Afghanistan. How would you respond to that?
He’s absolutely right. The number one — and a lot of people don’t realize this, and again, this goes back to misunderstanding Islam.
Let me start with a statement, first of all: the biggest mistake we’ve made in this thing is from our premise that, number one, Islam is a religion of peace. It is not.
Prime Minister Erdogan in Turkey took great issue with that when — I don’t remember who it was, a military person here in the United States or someone within our government, wanted to assure the Muslim population of the world that we recognize their religion is peaceful. He took great issue with that. He took that as a personal insult.
And the point is, therein lies the genesis of the problem, in our misunderstanding of the religion — or the adherents of the religion — their vision of who they are. In our delicate sensibilities as Americans, and our lack of understanding of Islam, we wanted to impress on them who we would like them to be.
So we see them principally as peaceful people, and that you have within their numbers a few rogue individuals who want to go around strapping on a bomb and blowing things up. And somehow or another that doesn’t reflect the religion; it reflects basically these few idiots running around.
What we need to do is talk to the people and ask them who they are. And you don’t really have to go very far to do that. All you have to do is read their writings, read the consensus of the scholars — listen to who they say they are. Now, when they march in the street and claim to hate America, there’s probably a little bit more truth in that than you’d dare to suggest.
They in fact hold all things that are not Islamic as being unsubmissive to their holy being, Allah — who, by the way, is not the God of the Bible — and they believe that the Koran teaches them that they are to hold all infidels, all unbelievers, accountable. Now, you get an opportunity to convert; you don’t want to convert, you can become a slave — a slave to whoever it is that’s now capturing you — or you die. There’s no other way to do it.
The forces that are at work in the world right now, bombing places around the world, or cutting off heads — that we call terrorists — this is part of their plan, to destabilize everything that is not Islamic. If they can do that, and they can create any grief, Allah commends that behavior.
So when you’re looking at Iran specifically, Iran has, under their clerics, a very specific understanding of end time prophecy as is described within the Koran. The believe that they can, and have a responsibility to, bring on end times as quickly as possible. The great “Antichrist” figure within the Islamic faith […] they believe is a Jew.
The Islamic peoples of the world hate the Jews above all else, infidels second to that. Curiously enough, the number one people they hate, actually, before the Jews, are the apostates. So when you’re talking about the converts to Christianity, the reason they’re so willing to kill them, those are people that are unrepentant, people that have known the truth, moved away, and should be killed — there is no hope for them; there is no asking them to come back. Just kill ‘em outright. Jews next, then infidels.
The Islamic regime, which is a theocracy — that farce they have in the way of Ahmadinejad is strictly a front. It’s almost like, if you watch any of these sci-fi movies, and they’re going to deal with alien creatures from other planets, they’ll create these facades to speak for them, that the alien might possibly understand. That’s all that Ahmadinejad is. That’s all that form of governance is. They are by any definition a theocracy.
Their intent is to bring about, number one, the Caliphate again — which was disbanded, what, about a hundred years ago  — and to enforce it, and that Caliphate’s business is to use every tool within the Koranic toolbox to go out and to force the world into submission to Allah.
So, yeah, when you’re looking at Iran reaching out into Afghanistan, there’s certainly great evidence that they’re making great headway in Iraq. My belief is that as soon as we pull out, I wouldn’t give Iraq a year, and it will be under an Iranian-controlled theocracy. And I believe that once we leave Afghanistan, it will happen there.
This whole notion of leaving a void in Afghan government, that’s another piece of nonsense. There wasn’t any void before we got there; there will be no void when we leave. And, even after we leave — if we leave having completed whatever mission we decide, if it’s just killing bad guys and going home — I can promise you that there will be a very strong Islamic regime, one way or the other, in control of Afghanistan once this is done.