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August 12, 2009

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - The Wrong Tactics Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at Registan, Josh Foust links to a recent post by Tim Lynch that captures much of my concern over the current focus in Afghanistan on rules of engagement (ROE) aimed at limiting civilian casualties rather than targeting the enemy. The post is rather long, but worth a read:

It seems to me that the Taliban understands this ROE  change and know that as long as they are operating near civilians we will not whack them.  How else do you explain 20 armed guys moving several kilometers in broad daylight through the densely populated, strategically important Kabul river delta?  A year ago there would have been so many attack birds stacked over these deadbeats they would have needed an airborne controller to keep them from hitting each other.

 . . . Air-power is how we fight when we want to be asymmetrical and we are good at it.  However our FOB bound operational mindset has created opportunities for Afghan score settling which is how we have been  tricked into bombing wedding parties or warning the only physician in Nuristan to flee his clinic and then killing him and all the nurses and midwife too as they pulled out in their vehicle.  Due to our over reliance on technology and local informants we have created a more level playing field for the bad guys who clearly understand they are, for now, safe from our ground attack aviation assets.  Just in time for the elections too….unbelievable.

The way forward  is not allowing the very same senior military and civilian leaders directly responsible for creating the Big Box FOB method of warfare to place even great constraints on the junior men doing the fighting.  They are not changing the Rules of Engagement (ROE) because those rules proved ineffective at protecting men in contact by pounding the bad guys to parade rest.  They are changing the rules based on pressure concerning civilian casualties . . .

In war people die; the currency spent by battle commanders is blood.  Many of those who perish are innocents which is why the professional does not enjoy war, seek combat or prolong conflict.  Our leaders are prolonging conflict by restricting the use of our decisive combat arm.  They say they are doing this to avoid civilian casualties yet we know from history that this is a consideration to which we pay lip service only when it is convenient to do so.  Do you think those same commanders were worried about civilian casualties when they had an American platoon surround and in danger of being overrun at Wanat last year?  Of course not – they leveled that village and I’m glad they did because those cats were all combatants in my eyes. Of course the children inside that village were innocents and no military professional wants to be forced into killing innocents but the enemy has a vote in how battles turn out too.  In war people die; that is why it is called war. It is in everyone’s best interest to get this shit over quickly and to beat the enemy decisively.  It is not important how wars start; how the end is critical.  When the enemy is beaten and knows he is beaten wars end.  Until we reach that point we will spend blood, our blood, their blood and the blood of innocents.  The longer this is allowed to continue the more we are going to bleed….it is now as it always has been which is why we need to finish it.   And the only way to finish it is to kill the Big T Taliban when and where we find them regardless of how many innocents are in the blast radius.

This post makes me deeply uncomfortable for a couple of reasons. First, the suggestion that killing civilians is acceptable; and second that I think the author makes an important point.

The current mission in Afghanistan is predicated on the operational approach of population centric counter-insurgency - i.e. separating the population from insurgents by, in part, providing them with protection and security. As General McChrystal has made clear: ""The Afghan people are at the center of our mission," he said. "In reality, they are the mission. We must protect them from violence -- whatever its nature. We must respect their religion and traditions."

Here's the problem: if there is one constant in counter-insurgency it is the use of violence and coercion to achieve one's goals. Malaysia, for example, is often portrayed as a successful approach to counter-insurgency and capturing "hearts and minds"  - less commented upon is the most successful element of that effort, the forcible relocation of half a million ethnic Chinese. That is, unfortunately, one way to separate the insurgent from the population.

In the Philippines, the US fought a counter-insurgency that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians while introducing techniques of torture, like waterboarding. In the counter-insurgency manual, FM 3-24, there is discussion of the CORDS, counter-insurgency program in Vietnam. Less discussed is one of its key features - the Phoenix Program, an assassination program of Vietcong leaders that killed more than 25,000 people. Finally, in Iraq, the "success" of the surge and COIN tactics there had far more to do with the ethnic cleansing and sectarian conflict of 2005 and 2006, which separated rival Sunni and Shiite ethnic groups from one another. Even more rarely mentioned in the surge narrative is the high levels of US military violence that accompanied the surge - indeed in 2007 US air strikes killed 3 1/2 times as many civilians as they did in 2006.

The point here is that successful counter-insurgency is not simply a matter of offering carrots to your enemy; there is also a lot of stick. But to read the post above suggests that in Afghanistan we are using far more carrots - and in the process potentially prolonging the conflict. For all the talk of reconciliation, what is the motivation for disaffected Pasthuns to switch sides if a) they believe they are winning the war and b) they aren't coming under the sort of military pressure that would serve as leverage for encouraging reconciliation. Now granted, one can't lump all Taliban together, but if we are not willing to use coercion to get them to switch sides or give up arms then we truly are looking at a much longer possible conflict.

Now before I get in another blog dust-up I should say that I am not advocating this approach. But the very fact that we've taken military coercion off the table as a tactic is part of the reason why I am so skeptical about the mission in Afghanistan. We have created a paradox in Afghanistan - our announced goal is to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, which will in the short-term make it far harder to win the war because we are not targeting the enemy directly.  In other words, since we don't have effective host country support or enough US troops on the ground the process of building and holding will take that much longer to achieve. Again, this is not to say such an approach won't work, but it's predicated on a long-term trajectory of building up the confidence of the population, providing security and offering services.

In the mean time, by not taking the war to the the Taliban directly - outside the core 5-10% ideological Taliban - we appear to be emboldening them to attack US and ISAF troops and operate with some degree of impunity. Where is the incentive of the $10 a day Taliban or disaffected Pashtun nationalist to switch sides? The fact that we are unable to dismantle their safe havens in Pakistan makes it even more difficult. So the process of political reconciliation that everyone agrees will be the key to "winning the war" will become that much harder to achieve.

We are, for lack of a better word, betwixt and between. Unwilling, for public relations reasons, to really take the fight to the Taliban and yet at the same time embarking on a mission organized around carrots and not sticks that flies in the face of past COIN "successes."

In a sense, it appears that we've chosen a mission in Afghanistan that minimizes our military's comparative advantage and accentuates practices for which we have neither the will, the resources nor the core competency to successfully implement.


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The United States has also used similiar violent tactics in the Phillipines and Vietnam. In the Phillipines the Americans starved the local population in order to get them into populated sectors held by the government. While in Vietnam, massive firepower was used on VC controlled villages in order to get the villagers into leaving their surroundings and moving into ARVN controlled cities. Afghanistan is different from Vietnam,Iraq,and the Phillipines in that the population is nomadic and unlikely to move into the government controlled cities and towns. Moreover the United States lacks the soldiers to spread out to every town in Afghanistan.

"The game of strategy can, like music, be played in two keys. The major key is direct strategy, in which force is the essential factor. The minor key is indirect strategy, in which force recedes into the background and its place is taken by psychology and planning."

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