Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Screw The Generals, It's The Foot Soldiers That Count

The frenzy whether Gen. Stanley McChrystal will resign, be fired or retained as commander of Afghanistan military forces for disparaging remarks about his civilian counterparts is misplaced.

The focus should be on the foot soldiers carrying out the counterinsurgency mission with rules of engagement that are "handcuffing" their efforts to defeat the enemy.

Indulge me for reprinting one paragraph from my column yesterday from the Rolling Stone article that I considered most revealing:

At one outpost, a soldier McChrystal had met earlier was killed in a house that the local U.S. commander had repeatedly asked to destroy. The request was denied, apparently out of concern that razing the house would anger locals whose allegiance the U.S. is trying to win.

"Does that make any (expletive) sense?" Pfc. Jared Pautsch asks. "We should just drop a (expletive) bomb on this place. You sit and ask yourself, 'What are we doing here?'" 
I have more compassion for the life of Pfc Pautsch than the career of Gen. McChrystal

As if the gods were smiling on those forced to make the ultimate sacrifice, the New York Times Wednesday addressed that issue squarely.

“I wish we had generals who remembered what it was like when they were down in a platoon,” a sergeant said to a reporter in the back of an armored transport. “Either they never have been in real fighting, or they forgot what it’s like.”

It is McChrystal's rules of engagement that have made it much more difficult for troops to use air strikes and artillery in the fight against the Taliban.

“The troops hate it,” one army colonel said. “Right now we’re losing the tactical-level fight in the chase for a strategic victory. How long can that be sustained?”

Troops in the trenches are always bitching about the food, weather and conditions. But when more and more are questioning the sanity of their commanding generals, a serious morale problem becomes a cancer.

As the Times and Rolling Stone articles suggest, McChrystal or his successor faces a far more serious problem than keeping their civilian diplomatic and political leaders happy. A constituency no commander wants to lose is his own troops.

The natural instinct of a combat soldier when his buddy is killed, no matter how well trained, is to bomb the bastards that did it. That's a recipe for frustration and anger becoming redirected up the chain of command.

U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan are playing by a set of rules of engagement. 

The enemy has no rules. They exploit those rules to blend, hide and shield themselves amongst the villagers to escape and fight another day. 

The Times:

Young officers and enlisted soldiers and Marines, typically speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, speak of “being handcuffed,” of not being trusted by their bosses and of being asked to battle a canny and vicious insurgency “in a fair fight.” 

Rolling Stone:

“Winning hearts and minds in COIN is a coldblooded thing...The Russians killed 1 million Afghans, and that didn’t work.” 

COIN is the abbreviation for counterinsurgency. 

The generals and diplomats have slapped the brakes on indiscriminate air and artillery strikes from lessons learned in Iraq. No need to remind anyone of some of those atrocities

It also is an effort to appease Afghan President Hamid Karzai who has lodged countless protests earlier in the 10-year war that too many innocent civilians were killed as collateral damage. For his local audience, he has threatened to negotiate with the Taliban for peace.

The way many sergeants and platoon leaders see it, some rules do not merely transfer risks away from civilians. They transfer risks away from the Taliban. 

The Times:

Now, with fire support often restricted, or even idled, Taliban fighters seem noticeably less worried about an American response, many soldiers and Marines say. Firefights often drag on, sometimes lasting hours, and costing lives. The United States’ material advantages are not robustly applied; troops are engaged in rifle-on-rifle fights on their enemy’s turf. 

From a tactical ground decision:

This has lead to situations many soldiers describe as absurd, including decisions by patrol leaders to have fellow soldiers move briefly out into the open to draw fire once aircraft arrive, so the pilots might be cleared to participate in the fight...
But restrictions that are popular in Kabul have often alienated soldiers and Marines whose lives are at stake, including rules that limit when Western troops can enter Afghan homes. Such rules, soldiers and Marines say, concede advantages to insurgents, making it easier for them to hide, to fight, to meet and to store their weapons or assemble their makeshift bombs.

The chilling KIA count in Afghanistan is 1,000 U.S. soldiers, a list growing daily now that the fight to capture Taliban strongholds in the south is escalating.

I end this story the same way the Times article concluded:

(No) one wants to explain whether the restrictions are increasing the number of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base, and seeding disillusionment among those sent to fight.

Hitler boasted a 1,000-year Reich. I fear a 1,000-year war in Afghanistan at the rate events are progressing. It is not that I value an American life higher than an innocent Afghan civilian caught in a crossfire.

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