Rules of Engagement – Afghanistan and Iraq

Rules of Engagement – Afghanistan and Iraq


Australian political and military authorities have repeatedly maintained that the guidelines delineating what is and is not lawful and acceptable conduct in ADF operations, known as Rules of Engagement, cannot be released for reasons of operational security. They have also maintained that Australian Rules of Engagement are more stringent than those of the United States.

The fullest concrete discussion of ADF rules of engagement was provided by the Defence Department during Operation Falconer in March-April 2003. As the precise ROE for that operation were not disclosed, and any differences with those of other ADF operations are not immediately clear. Notwithstanding this lack of detail, the Operation Falconer ROE statement established general characteristics of ADF ROE in that case that may be more widely applicable:

  • claimed necessity for non-disclosure of ROE: “Precise knowledge by an adversary of the limitations that have been placed on the use of force by Australian forces could endanger the lives of ADF personnel.”
  • compliance (“in broad terms”) with Australia’s domestic and international legal obligations.
  • authorization of “necessary and proportionate lethal force all Iraqi military and paramilitary forces”
  • prohibition on attack of “civilians or other persons protected by the Geneva Conventions, such as those who are incapacitated by sickness or wounding, and are unable to defend themselves, or who have surrendered”
  • prohibition on use of landmines and cluster munitions
  • more stringent than those of United States military.

Government sources

Operation Slipper ROE

CDF Introductory Remarks, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston,  Media Roundtable, MSPA 90721/09,  21 July 2009

Our members operate under strict Rules of Engagement which are specifically designed to avoid civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure but also to provide the maximum level of protection for our troops. I recently directed a thorough review of our Rules of Engagement. It confirmed our Rules of Engagement are being applied appropriately.

Update: ADF Supports Dutch Against Taliban Attacks In Southern Afghanistan, Media release, Department of Defence, 24 June 2007.

“Further to yesterday’s announcement regarding ADF support to Dutch operations in Uruzgan and the statement overnight by Afghanistan President, Hamid Karzai, regarding his concern in relation to civilian causalities, Defence confirms that it aims to avoid and minimise civilian causalities and has done so in the case of recent actions in Uruzgan. Defence is concerned about any loss of innocent lives and Australian forces operate under Rules of Engagement that aim to avoid and minimise civilian casualties.”

Operation Falconer ROE

Operation Falconer, Frequent Questions, Department of Defence

“Australian rules of engagement have been endorsed by Government and issued to commanders. They define the circumstances and limitations within which military force may be applied during operations in Iraq. Rules of engagement are by necessity protected. Precise knowledge by an adversary of the limitations that have been placed on the use of force by Australian forces could endanger the lives of ADF personnel. However, in broad terms, Australian rules of engagement comply fully with Australia’s domestic and international legal obligations, including Australia’s obligations under the Laws of Armed Conflict, the Geneva Conventions, and other treaties to which Australia is a Party.

“Under these obligations, Australian forces will be authorised to engage with necessary and proportionate lethal force all Iraqi military and paramilitary forces, as required to achieve their mission.

“Australian forces will not attack civilians or other persons protected by the Geneva Conventions, such as those who are incapacitated by sickness or wounding, and are unable to defend themselves, or who have surrendered.

“Australian forces will not attack civilians, other persons protected by the Geneva Conventions, or civilian objects such as civilian buildings, provided they are not being used for a military purpose. Under the same conditions, Australian forces will also not attack objects and infrastructure such as hospitals, places of worship, objects of cultural significance, dams, dykes and nuclear power stations.

“Additionally, and consistent with Australia’s obligations under the Ottawa Convention, Australian forces will not use or assist or encourage others to use anti-personnel landmines.

“As a matter of Government policy, the use of cluster munitions by Australian forces has been prohibited.

“Are Australia’s rules of engagement more stringent than those of the United States? Australia is party to more international treaties than the United States. Australia has more stringent obligations under international law. For example, as a signatory to the Ottawa Convention we prohibit the use of anti-personnel land mines. Also, as a matter of policy we prohibit the use of cluster bomb munitions. These differences will not affect our ability to work with United States forces.”

Operation Bastille ROE


Operation Bastille, Frequently Asked Questions, Department of Defence

“What are the ADF’s rules of engagement for any war on Iraq? The ADF has not issued any rules of engagement for a war against Iraq because the Government has not made any commitment to a military operation against Iraq. The rules of engagement for ADF elements deployed under Operation Bastille are purely those of self defence.”


Soldiers’ rifles boast biblical citations, Jonathan Pearlman, The Age, 22 January 2010

THE Defence Force says Australian soldiers have been using rifle sights engraved with biblical citations and it will move quickly to deal with any ”sensitivities”. A spokesman said the military had been unaware that the sights – made in the US by Trijicon, which was founded by a devout Christian – carried references to Bible verses. The citations appear in raised lettering at the end of the sight stock number. A spokeswoman said Australia had 1051 of the sights, although it was not known how many were in Afghanistan.

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When innocent Afghans die, Brian Toohey, AFR, 24/25 October 2009

Although they comprise only about 300 of the 1550 Australian troops in Afghanistan, the special forces are at the centre of 12 of the 18 incidents in which the ADF has allegedly caused civilian casualties since July 1, 2008. Defence refuses to release the wording of the rules of engagement. Today there is a greater willingness to accept that Australians are not supposed to kill civilians. [Subscription required]

Strategic Insight 23 – Precarious State: Afghanistan and the international and Australian response, Elsina Wainwright, ASPI, 28 March 2006.

“There is a question as to whether NATO’s rules of engagement will be suffcient: while these will be more robust for the south than in the north and west, NATO’s posture remains an essentially peacekeeping and stabilising one. The Dutch-Australian PRT will therefore need a significant security emphasis, and more robust mandates, rules of engagement and equipment will be required than in the north and west. Australian troops have not in the past been closely interoperable with Dutch forces, and will likely be working more closely with them than with the Japanese in Al Muthanna in Iraq. In addition, Australian personnel will receive protection from the Dutch, and their security will depend on the Dutch rules of engagement. It will be essential for the Netherlands to have very robust rules of engagement to meet Australian needs; this will require tough decisions of the Dutch Government.”

Jim Wallace on Afghan troop deployment”, PM, ABC Radio National, July 13, 2005.

“MARK COLVIN: Retired Brigadier Jim Wallace is a former commander of Australia’s SAS and special forces.
MARK COLVIN: There are also issues of rules of engagement. I have heard rumblings that suggest that on occasions Australians have not been too happy with the way that the Americans have enforced the rules of engagement.
JIM WALLACE: Well that’s right. That’ll happen in any multilateral force I think, because the rules of engagement in the end go back to the political intent and the political will of the government that’s sending them and, obviously, people coming from a multinational force, or in a multinational force, are coming from a different government perspective, different national perspective. So, there won’t always be 100 per cent agreement over rules of engagement but you can be sure that the Australian rules of engagement will be approved back here, to Australia, to the Defence headquarters and ultimately I think you’ll find, the National Security Committee of Cabinet.”
MARK COLVIN: But if Australians are under US command is there ever any problem there?
JIM WALLACE: No. This issue of rules of engagement is one of those things that the national commander will reserve the right to decide whether or not his forces do something on the basis of the agreed rules of engagement by which the Australian or national commitment has been made.

Wounded Iraqi demands compensation”, Brendan Nicholson, The Age, March 18, 2005.

“An Iraqi civilian shot by Australian soldiers in Baghdad is seeking compensation from the Australian Defence Force – a move that could trigger a landmark court battle over the rights and obligations of troops posted overseas. ‘The interesting thing here would be civil liability as opposed to our guys using rules of engagement to do their job and who then becomes liable,’ a Defence Department source said.

“In January soldiers near the Australian embassy in Baghdad shot a man who ignored instructions to move on. The man was wounded and Iraqi authorities took him away. Reports said he died.
A journalist who investigated said witnesses told him the man was involved in a minor traffic accident. He got out to inspect the damage, ignored the soldiers’ shouts and was shot. In each case the Defence Force investigated and concluded that the soldiers had complied with the rules of engagement.”

Our pilots refused to bomb 40 times”, Frank Walker, Sydney Morning Herald, March 14, 2004.

“Australia’s F/A-18 pilots defied the orders of American commanders and refused to drop their bombs on up to 40 missions during the invasion of Iraq, it can now be revealed. In a remarkable account of how our airmen applied Australian rules of engagement, an RAAF pilot has told The Sun-Herald each of the 14 RAAF Hornet pilots aborted three to four bombing runs because intelligence given at pre-flight briefings did not concur with what they found at the target.

“Squadron Leader Daryl Pudney last week described how he and other Australian F/A-18 pilots were forced to weigh up the risk of civilian casualties in a split second before dropping their bombs.He said pilots broke off many missions after they saw the target and decided there was not a valid military reason to drop their bombs.

“But it appears there were fundamental differences between the US dominated headquarters and Australian pilots over what constituted a valid military target. Squadron Leader Pudney said under Australia’s rules of engagement pilots had to ask themselves on each mission whether it was right to drop their bombs.

“‘Each guy would have made that decision once to half a dozen times in the conflict. It was presented as being just one pilot in one incident, but it was all of us several times,’ he said. ‘We were providing an identification of targets in conjunction with ground forces, and if we were not 100 per cent sure we were taking out a valid military target in accordance with our specifications we just did not drop.’

“Squadron Leader Pudney said he could not comment on the reasons they aborted specific missions. But it seems that it was often to avoid the unnecessary killing of civilians. ‘As we approached the target area we confirmed we had the right place. Then we’d run a check provided through our training that we were doing the right thing by our rules of engagement. We exercise those all the time. In Iraq it was a matter of the briefings we received prior in regards to our rules of engagement, as to whether we thought this was a target we should be destroying. If it was not, then we decided not to deploy.’ He said most decisions were made in the air, but some were command decisions.”

Australian pilots aborted US-assigned bombing raids during Iraq war, Terry Cook, WSWS, 23 March 2004

“Given the enormous pressure exerted on military personnel in a war zone and the extreme penalties that flow from disobeying orders, the Hornet pilots’ decision to abort missions suggests there were widespread misgivings among sections of the armed forces about the legality of the US-led invasion and therefore of any actions they might be called upon to carry out.

“According to the Australian Defence Department, the rules of engagement forbade strikes on hospitals, schools, places of worship, dams and nuclear power stations and, unlike those governing the US, banned the use of cluster bombs and land mines. Pressed during a media interview in March last year about what would be required of Australian troops under US command, Hill replied that the US, ‘knows the restrictions that Australia has accepted under various international conventions and the like, and they simply don’t put us in an awkward position.’ The latest revelations reveal that assurance to be a lie.

“Anticipating high civilian casualties, Hill attempted a justification in advance. Any Iraqi military installations or weapons near civilian populations were a ‘grey area.’ He would only guarantee that ‘civilian targets with only some incidental military benefit’ would be avoided.

“Hill’s claim that Australia abided by international agreements banning the use of cluster bombs and other anti-personnel devices is just more cynical deception. While there have been no reports that Australian planes used such weapons, they most certainly would have provided cover for US aircraft that dropped cluster munitions and for US tanks and artillery that fired anti-personnel shells during the invasion. One such attack by US forces using cluster munitions left 61 civilians dead and 450 seriously wounded, including many children, in Hilla, a town 80 kilometres from Baghdad.

Legal landmines confronting troops”, Cosima Marriner, Sydney Morning Herald, March 22 2003

“In balancing military objectives against civilian safety, Australian forces will be governed by rules of engagement. As Colonel Rowan Tink, commander of the Australian SAS forces in Afghanistan, said bluntly: ‘[In] a war zone, you just can’t shoot anybody. You have to meet a number of criteria before you can engage the target.’

“The basic laws of war are the same for everyone. The most hard and fast is that civilians and civilian infrastructure – including schools, churches and hospitals – must not be attacked. But what if Australian soldiers have evidence that Saddam has stashed weapons in a school with innocent civilians? That’s when ‘the rule of proportionality’ comes into play. The commander must be convinced the ‘concrete and direct military advantage anticipated’ outweighs the possible ‘civilian loss of life, destruction of civilian objects or destruction of things necessary for civilian life’.

“The US has not ratified additional protocols to the Geneva Convention, nor signed the Ottowa Convention on anti-personnel landmines. While the Defence Force says the exact rules for Operation Falconer are ‘highly classified’, it is known that Australian troops are banned from using anti-personnel landmines and cluster bombs, while US forces are not. So, although the US will direct Australian military action in Iraq, Australian soldiers will be bound by additional rules, summarised on a card handed to each soldier before the campaign.

“The Defence Minister insists Australian rules of engagement will not be compromised in Iraq. ‘The United States … know the restrictions that Australia has accepted under various international conventions and the like and they simply don’t put us in an awkward position,’ Senator Hill told ABC Radio this week. But he would not categorically rule out Australian support for coalition operations that used landmines or cluster bombs.”

Australia will fight by its own rules, Hill vows”, Cosima Marriner, Sydney Morning Herald, March 20 2003.

See also

Project coordinator: Richard Tanter
Updated: 45 December 2014