Special Forces, Special Rules of Engagement? – A Thought Experiment


As often happens, a former student asked my view on the following story about British Special Forces (SAS) accused of illegal killings of civilians in Afghanistan in 2011. BBC Story Daily Mail story  The original story appeared in the Daily Mail, and then was picked up in shorter (and less salacious versions) in the BBC and Guardian. Here is what is clear: British Special Forces are accused, and an investigation is on-going, of illegally killing non-combatants in Afghanistan.  It seems that the particular incident in these stories may be a part of a larger trend or concern, as there have been some other investigations; it is also noted in the stories that many of the accusations/cases have been found without cause or evidence for prosecution.

These kinds of stories are not unusual. Nor are the claims by those investigating that they are being stonewalled in their investigations (note comments by Scott Green in multiple outlets attesting to this), that evidence was fabricated and that there are varying degrees of complicity and/or cover up. There are the usual pronouncements by political leaders attesting to the decency and virtue of their armed forces and that a thorough investigation would be pursued.  At this stage, it is not clear what actually happened, what the evidence is and whether there will be prosecutions or further charges.

If the charges are born out, then there is also the usual legal route to deal with killings that would seem (without knowing the details, I am completely speculating) to violate IHL and possibly the rules of engagement (ROE).  Aside from the legal issues, intentionally targeting of non-combatants is immoral and it is also counter-productive in counter-insurgency operations. So if the facts are born out as reported, things seem fairly clear; another unfortunate case study to add to the list of My Lai, Haditha….

But. And there is always a but! One comment that arose from the stories as presented in the press, was the idea that SAS might operate with their own and distinct rules of engagement, within which the actions alleged were permissible. In other words, what looks like a war crime with the ROE framework of the conventional (non-elite units) of the military, might not be if (and only if) Special Forces operate according to their own rules.

This is really interesting. There is, of course, the empirical question of whether there are distinct ROE for elite forces in this (or any case) or whether there is more flexibility and nuance in how those rules are interpreted.  Does context and the kind of mission matter here? Is it possible that Special Forces has their own ROE? Or failing that, could they have their own JAG’s (legal officers, Judge Advocate General) or others who provide contextual interpretations of ROE given their missions? Floating this online to military members, and also looking at some discussion from the British side on this issue, raised more questions than it answered and revealed a wide variety of incompatible views!

So its an interesting empirical question, presumably with a correct answer. One option could be that formally there is one set of ROE, but that there are informal and formal interpretations and practices following from those interpretations that may differ and seem like different ROE.  From my work on Vietnam, one could argue this was the case there. That official policy and guidance was one thing, but what actually happened and was tolerated in the field was a different matter. Laws and norms are not always the same. (See Bilton and Sim, Four Hours in My Lai for a good discussion of this relative to My Lai.)

As an ethicist, I also wonder about the philosophical question – aside from what current practice and policy actually is – what should be the case? Is there an argument to be made for the idea that Special Forces (or other elite units) ought to have special ROE? Surely the level of training, expertise and therefore of professional judgment and discretion possessed by individuals in these units and roles exceeds the conventional military grunt? Surely this would justify another ROE standard, or at the very least substantial leeway in terms of the interpretations and permissions that would be given in executing missions?

I can imagine a plausible line of argument here, rooted in expertise, training and the development of professional judgment and discretion.  I can also imagine a whole host of problems that might arise from such a formal two (or multiple tiered) system, as well as from any kind of more informal system that instantiated different standards for treatment of POWs, targeting of non-combatants (discrimination)  or acceptable levels force (proportionality).

On one hand, if there is one set of standards or ROE, it makes things simple. These are the rules and they must be followed. But if the ROE seem problematic or impractical given a particular mission, situation or context, what happens then? Will they be abandoned and ignored completely? Tweaked but still maintained in the spirit of the moral principles?  And who will be deciding on the alterations or suspension? On what grounds? If there are multiple standards, do we not end up with the same problem?

Let the discussion begin….

Published by shankskaurin

Philosopher and military ethicist. Author of two books, including "On Obedience" (USNI Press, 2020) I also teach war college students for the Navy. (Views here are personal only.) Mother to two energetic young lads. Foodie, gardener and Diva with a shoe obsession.

5 thoughts on “Special Forces, Special Rules of Engagement? – A Thought Experiment

  1. It would make sense for special forces to have different rules of engagement. In other contexts this is a normal approach. Take a call centre, 80% are constrained to follow the script. Their team leaders can interpret edge cases and use judgement. The really complect stuff goes to specialist teams to deal with. Those specialists have a different remit.

    When it comes to the application of violence the rules of engagement for regular troops are going to be written to err on the side of staying well within the law. The ROE need to be written to be clear and unambiguous, and capable of being understood under extreme stress. That will make them overly simplistic compared to the actual legality of the situation.


  2. Should different units and different missions have different rules of engagements (RoE)? Yes. Should special forces or others adhere to different a different version of international humanitarian law (IHL)? No.

    RoE is the commander’s tool to control the level of force used in a specific mission. The mission’s overall OPLAN will be decided on the political level. Such an OPLAN will contain commander’s intent for the use of force. This intent cannot breach the limits of IHL. It can, however, clarify and state under which conditions use of force is authorized in this specific mission. Subsequent commanders cannot authorize wider limits but any commander is free to restrict the use of force even further. If the limits of IHL cannot be breached it now follows that when use of force is authorized in accordance with RoE it must also be legal according to IHL. However, it does not follow that any beach of RoE is also a violations of IHL and thus a war crime.

    RoEs will and should differ according to the circumstances. Even as an infantry commander in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province I have experienced RoEs that changed according to the situation or mission. RoEs during peace supporting operations ought to be more restrictive RoEs used to defend the homeland. In that case I guess RoE would basically be IHL.

    It seems impossible to have different sets of IHLs for the many objections you have already mentioned. Different RoEs, however, should follow from different situations.

    In practice, I find the basic problem with IHL to be how to interpret and assess the principles of proportionality and military necessity. This discussion hinges on the understanding of the situation. Special operation forces are normally deployed at the joint force level and used to attain strategic or operational objectives. This should give us an idea on the evaluation of “military necessity” in such operations. What is proportionate during such an operation will differ from what is proportionate during a normal foot patrol in a peace supporting operation.

    Special forces should not adhere to a different version of IHL neither are they granted access to breach IHL as they deem fit. But it follows from the missions they are typically tasked with that their RoEs will and should differ from other units’ solving missions.


    1. There seems to be a lot of confusion on what ROEs allow and do not allow. IHL? How will IHL look at an assaulting force at Normandy not initially taking prisoners because they cannot afford the time or manpower to dedicate to that as they must capture a point in order to accomplish the mission of establishing a beach head and end threats to more friendly troops coming on the beach. Under the letter of the law we are supposed to take prisoner regardless of the situation, but that is not the tactical, operational or strategic reality.


  3. There seems to be a lot of misconceptions about ROEs and tactical realities. It is immoral, illegal and counter-productive to intentionally target known civilians who are not part of an enemy force. It is wrong. However, there are a lot of people, to include a lot of academics who do not understand that it is not always as simple as things appear to be. What if they,the civilians, are part of the network that support the insurgency? What if they are running an armament factory that supplies the guerilla force with munitions to kill and wound you or your allies in the host nation, but are not actively engaged in actions against you in the field and shooting at you? What if they run a infil/exfil line that gets people and/or supplies in and out of a contested area? A lot of “What If’s?”

    Also, in a guerilla conflict the enemy is not always going to wear a distinguishing bandana, uniform, etc….

    On different ROEs, especially as it relates to IHL? Here is a scenario where that might be in play- A SAS Sabre Squadron is sent into to take out an IRA Cell that has an man portable atomic bomb. They cell lives in an apartment complex, in that same complex are a lot of people who are unaware that the IRA is there and perhaps do not even support the IRA. We will put this apartment in London to support this. The SAS do an initial study and find out that there is a high likely hood they will be compromised by innocents in the apartment building and that could lead to the IRA Cell setting off the bomb. In order for them to accomplish their mission they think they may have to kill innocent citizens of the UK while they are about to assault the IRA Cell in their apartments in order to prevent the bomb from being used or worse, sold to another violent actor. They come up with ROEs that allow them kill citizens if it cannot be avoided on their way to the assault of the IRA Cell. Are these ROEs ok morally, ethically, legally?


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