From the Commander Policy Staff Picks

The Effects of Politics on ROE: How Policy Actors Put Troops at Risk

Written by AJ Powell

There is a major controversy right now, sparked from within the United States Department of Defense. Service members, Veterans, lobbyists, and even the general public have been outraged over the sentencing of U.S. Army 1LT Clint Lorance to 20 years confinement at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Prosecutors argued that while deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, 1LT Lorance violated the newly established Rules of Engagement and murdered Afghan civilians; however, the defense claimed his orders to his men to engage enemy scouts was self-defense, and that 1LT Lorance was setup for failure from the start due to politically enacted restrictions to the ROE[1].


US Army 1LT Clint Lorance – US Army (Released)

After enlisting right out of high school and serving as a Military Police Officer for several years, Lorance attended the Green to Gold Program, earned his commission as a 2LT in the United States Army in 2010, and was assigned to the 4th Brigade Combat Team as a Platoon Leader. In 2012, the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th BCT was deployed to Afghanistan, and 1LT Lorance took command of a platoon that had just lost their previous platoon commander to an IED[2]. Intelligence forewarned that the Taliban had been using radiomen on dirt bikes to relay the positions of ISAF[3] troops and coordinate attacks against Coalition Forces, and while on patrol, 1LT Lorance’s platoon came across three men on a dirt bike who were suspected of relaying their position to enemy fighters. To protect his soldiers, 1LT Lorance ordered his men to engage and subdue the enemy. Two were killed and one was wounded and ran away. 1LT Lorance was arrested soon after returning to base. His trial took over a year and he was eventually found guilty by a military court of violating the established Rules of Engagement, two counts of murder, and sentenced to 20 years in confinement with a Dishonorable Discharge. Now the controversy begins.

Military, Veteran, and civilian supporters alike have stormed Washington via media, social media, and even in person, to campaign for the freedom of Lorance and an overturn on the conviction. A White House petition calling on Obama to grant a Presidential Pardon to Lorance was set up on January 2nd, 2015 and reached more than 123,000 signatures before January 31st. Supporters argue that Lorance did the right thing by protecting his men, that he was not given a fair and just trial, and that no matter which action he took, he was going to be considered in the wrong. Arguments state that if Lorance had done nothing, his men would have likely walked into another ambush and sustained casualties to which Lorance would have been held accountable, and that upon encountering the three men on the motorcycle, Lorance had mere seconds to make the best decision possible based on the intelligence he had at the time to provide for the safety and security of his men and the mission. The controversy here is over the Rules of Engagement, a legal policy covering actions in the field established and enforced by Senior Commanders. Oftentimes ROE are driven by mission requirements, and nearly all considerations possible are included to provide for operational safety and avoidance of unnecessary damages. However, both the White House and institutional policy makers can take measures of their own which may alter and restrict ROE provisions in theater.

In 2013, Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai finalized the new U.S. – Afghanistan Security Agreement, which included provisions for the restriction of U.S. troops’ ability to engage Enemy Combatants unless specific events occurred first. For example, U.S. air and ground troops now had to first prove that a Taliban Fighter was armed, and have it confirmed, prior to engaging, and U.S. troops were no longer authorized to enter and/or search residential dwellings, effectively turning those structures into safe havens for the enemy. In the case of 1LT Lorance, recent casualties had resulted from coordinated attacks on U.S. troops due to radio communications from enemy scouts. Lorance was briefed on this intelligence, and the three men his platoon encountered posed a severe compromise to personnel and mission safety. Yet because the men were not armed with small arms, Lorance was found guilty of murder – even though communication is an effective weapon as well – all because of the restrictions imposed on the ROE.

Lorance’s case may have resulted in a conviction, but it is not unique. U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Dakota Meyer was bestowed the Congressional Medal of Honor on September 15th, 2011, for his actions in Afghanistan on September 8th, 2009. [Then] Corporal Meyer was standing security while his platoon moved into the village of Ganjgal for an early morning meeting with village elders when they were ambushed by more than 50 Taliban fighters. Several of his team members were cut off and CPL Meyer – with complete disregard for his own safety – took up the exposed gunner position on his gun truck as he and a fellow team member drove directly into the ambush area five times over the course of the 6-hour battle, to rescue those cut off. His actions that day saved the lives of many wounded Afghan and U.S. soldiers, and he was wounded himself, but four U.S. Marines died as a direct result of higher command authorities repeatedly denying requests for artillery and air support. Even after the fire team NCOIC[4] and an Air Force JTAC[5] took immediate action to provide that support as soon as the initial request came in, higher authorities instantly overruled them.

As Amore (2013) points out, the following investigation revealed that the reason those men died that day was the direct result of neglect from Commanders as they felt constrained by the ROE. Amore notes that, “Although it may seem apparent that throughout history the primary purpose of the ROE was to regulate the use of force by military personnel, the ROE actually serve three purposes: (1) political, (2) military, and (3) legal.” (Amore, 2013, p. 54). While the U.S. ROE for Afghanistan has always stated its primary purpose is to allow for the implementation of guidance on the application of force for mission accomplishment and authorizes the use of deadly force for self-defense (U.S. Army, 2012), and that this would therefore seem like a contradiction to the events that played out for 1LT Lorance, Amore points out that, “theater-specific ROE reflect ‘political guidance from higher authorities, the tactical considerations of the specific mission, and [the law of armed conflict]’” (Amore, 2013, p. 56). What we have, then, are policy actors forcing politically driven policies into military and joint-military operations that end up reducing the effectiveness of the ROE, and to which greatly reduces the individual soldier’s ability to accomplish the mission safely.

President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai exchange documents after signing the strategic partnership agreement signing ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 1, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

US President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai exchange documents after signing the strategic partnership agreement during a signing ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 1, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Policy actors within the United States come from both government institutions (Congress, the White House, etc.), and sub-government actors (Representatives, Senators, Judges, the media, and Citizens). This equates to not only a vast series of checks and balances in the system itself (which is purposely designed so as to provide for individual rights and freedoms first, and government policy second), but also creates a system of policy implementation plagued by the effects of polarization. “The significance of the sub-government concept is that it helps to explain why American public policy-making is often seen as inefficient, ineffective, uncoordinated, expensive and incremental, slow, and unresponsive. The concept of sub-governments helps to shed light on a contradictory and convoluted policy-making process that is often characterized as a plethora of policy actors pursuing their own interests, such as attempting to maximize their own benefits, while simultaneously trying to prevent competing interests from maximizing their benefits” (PSU, 2015). The provisions the Obama Administration demanded to be included in the framework of 2013 U.S. – Afghanistan Security Agreement reflect exactly these notions of policy polarization and controversy typically seen within the U.S. government. The unfortunate effect has effectively tied military soldiers’ hands behind their backs in the ability to accomplish the mission in a safe and effective manner. Further, the effects have turned many to resentment and anger over the policy.

“Call me crazy, but what on earth is the point of remaining there under these [rules of engagement], much less subjecting American soldiers to another set of restrictions that make sense only in proportion to your distance from the combat zone?”, said retired Army Col. Ken Allard, now a military analyst, in a November 2013 interview with the Washington Times (Scarborough, 2013). These remarks address the very real problem with allowing political motives into the military policy implementation process because political agendas often do not take into consideration the effects they will have on the safety and effectiveness of troops in combat. For example, by 2003, U.S. Special Operations Forces were so effective in Afghanistan that the Taliban had nearly all but been defeated or driven out. Mission success rates were at all time high levels, and troops were not only more effective at operations, but felt safer while on missions. Forward to 2012, and the insurgency has returned in full force with Taliban fighters able to use dwellings as safe havens due to political involvement enforcing increasing restrictions to the ROE since 2005. The resulting mission in Afghanistan has since been called a complete failure by service members and non-institutional actors alike due to the failure of bringing down the Taliban network now reestablishing itself in full force post-2014.

The failures in both Afghanistan and Iraq have largely been directly attributed to ROE restraints enacted due to policy actor agendas conflicting with the roles and responsibilities of military forces. Both 1LT Lorance’s and SGT Meyer’s experiences – along with countless other service member accounts – are a testament to how agenda-driven political actors can cause direct and indirect harm to military personnel through the use of political policies that confine the restraints of military policies designed to provide for effectiveness in operations and troop safety. Today, hundreds of thousands of Americans are pressuring Washington and the White House to take action in the case of 1LT Lorance, who meanwhile passes time in Leavenworth as a convicted criminal byproduct of policy issues, and service members like SGT Meyer live the rest of their lives knowing that their teammates died due to political policy restrictions.

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Kyle Bower, a rifleman with Company L, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, patrols a village in the Helmand province in Afghanistan on Dec. 22, 2008.  Bower's battalion is the ground combat component of the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Afghanistan.  DoD photo by Cpl. Pete Thibodeau, U.S. Marine Corps.  (Released)

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Kyle Bower, a rifleman with Company L, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, patrols a village in the Helmand province in Afghanistan on Dec. 22, 2008. Bower’s battalion is the ground combat component of the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Afghanistan. DoD photo by Cpl. Pete Thibodeau, U.S. Marine Corps. (Released)

The immediate effect these non-institutional actors seek is the freedom of Lorance and an overturn of the conviction, but this does not address the underlying problem that led to the cause of his confinement. Policy changes to the current, and future ROE in general occur at the implementation level when Senior Commanders draft, implement, monitor, and revise as necessary those legal policies. Yet when institutional actors above the levels of those who control ROE decide on courses of action that conflict with troop safety and effectiveness, we need to question whether those new policies should be rewritten or scrapped altogether. After all, while we do understand the purpose of U.S. foreign policy to create effective actions and promote peaceful relationships and exchanges, the very conflicting structure of American politics itself should never allow its own ineffective nature to place the lives of the nations bravest at risk for political gain.

[1] ROE – Rules of Engagement. Legal policies drafted by Commanders that govern actions within a theater of operations.

[2] IED – Improvised Explosive Device.

[3] ISAF – International Security Assistance Force. A NATO led security mission in Afghanistan from Dec. 2001 – Dec. 2014, established by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1386 (enact. of the Bonn Agreement), 1413, 1444, 1510, 1563, 1623, 1659, 1707, 1776, and 1917, and comprised of 48 nations (NATO and Allied) totaling 18,636 at near 700 installations throughout Afghanistan.

[4] NCOIC – NonCommissioned Officer In-Charge.

[5] JTAC – Joint Terminal Attack Controller.



Amore, C. D. (2013). Rules of Engagement: Balancing the (Inherent) Right and Obligation of Self-Defense with the Prevention of Civilian Casualties. National Security Law Journal, 1:1 (39-76).

Pennsylvania State University (2015). Political Science 490: Policy Making and Evaluation. Penn State World Campus. Retrieved from:

Scarborough, R. (2013). Rules of Engagement Limit the Actions of U.S. Troops and Drones in Afghanistan. The Washington Times. Retrieved from:

Tan, M (2015). Conviction stands for LT convicted in Afghan slayings. Army Times. Gannet. Retrieved from:

The White House (2015). We Petition the Obama Administration to: grant a presidential pardon to U.S. Army Lieutenant Clint Lorance in Leavenworth Prison. Retrieved from:

U.S. Army (2011). (U//FOUO) U.S. Army Rules of Engagement Vignettes Handbook. Department of the Army.

U.S. Army (2012). (U//FOUO) U.S. Army Rules of Engagement Vignettes Handbook. Department of the Army. Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) Rules of Engagement Vignettes Handbook. Retrieved from:

About the author

AJ Powell

AJ is a retired U.S. Army NCO who served in both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army. He is a combat veteran, and has participated in contingency operations around the world. AJ is the Owner of Veteran Leadership Solutions, the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Warfighter Journal, and is a published Sociological Analyst, Researcher, Guest Lecturer, and Public Speaker. He is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University with a focus on Sociology and a science degree in Organizational Leadership, and is published in the field of sociology. AJ is an inductive analyst; public figure; researcher/writer; aviator; a certified advanced operational diver; professional instructor, trainer, mentor, and adviser; snowboarder; motorcycle rider; world traveler; he enjoys long distance endurance events, and much more.