Mar 09

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.)

“[Bill] O’Reilly asked Trump if he meant it when he said that he would “take out” the family members of terrorists. He didn’t believe that Trump would “put out hits on women and children” if he were elected. Trump replied, “I would do pretty severe stuff.” The Mesa crowd erupted in applause. “Yeah, baby!” a man near me yelled. I had never previously been to a political event at which people cheered for the murder of women and children.”

    - Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker

As we wrote on Monday, when politicians say they want to loosen ROE, they really mean killing civilians. The most egregious example during this campaign is Ted Cruz repeatedly threatening to carpet bomb civilians. Next most egregious is Donald Trump emphasizing he would kill terrorists’ families (really, force our soldiers to kill them) as vengeful punishment, even if it violates the military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Obviously, this is morally and ethically abhorrent. We’re not the only ones to condemn this talk. In fact, a ton of people (rightfully) condemned it. Most persuasively, the top general in Iraq condemned the idea of carpet bombing.

So we want to add our voices to the chorus. As a society, when history looks back on this moment, we want them to see that some people did adamantly oppose killing civilians. And we oppose it for a simple reason:

It is morally wrong.

Every moral philosophy utterly condemns killing civilians. The “Golden Rule”--treat others as you wish to be treated--is present in almost every major world religion. So if you are a Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Confucian or Buddhist, you shouldn’t think your country should kill civilians in warfare. Of course, followers of every religion have broken this policy at some point, but they still hold to it.

For the Republican candidates, though, the only moral philosophy that really matters is Christianity. Ted Cruz is part of a “National Prayer Team”. Marco Rubio has advised that faith, “influences every aspect of your life.” Donald Trump has also flouted his own religious bonafides, but also got into a scrum with the Pope.

So let’s summarize the Christian position on war crimes: it forbids them. Virtually every Christian thinker who studies the words of Jesus Christ finds it impossible to advocate killing civilians. (As Eric C reminds me, a textual/originalist interpretation of the Bible forbids wars in general, but that’s for a later discussion.)

Christian philosophy forbids war crimes but does allow for wars, through the dominant philosophy of “Just War” theory. This theory--which is literally thousands of years old, created and developed by Christianity's greatest thinkers--demands strict limits on when you can go to war (as a Christian), and if you go to war, who you can kill (as a Christian). Obviously, there are a ton of nuances here, but suffice to say that to justify war crimes primarily means ignoring one’s Christian faith altogether.   

This widespread moral condemnation of war crimes extends to America’s political philosophy. The Founding Fathers believed in strict limits on the ability of America to make war, and even limited the size of the military in the Constitution. The Founding Fathers of America abhorred war and feared what it would do to the soul of our country. If one of our political parties embraces the legal position of “originalism”--and Republicans do--it should listen to the Founders on war. Like James Madison:

“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other...No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

In the current Republican primary fights, Just War theory and limited military intervention have fallen out of favor. Instead, a “real politick” view of the world that basically says, “What happens in foreign affairs isn’t covered by morality” has dominated the debates. Basically, a state should do whatever it takes to win...including killing civilians. The Wiki article on Just War theory has a fairly good summation that viewpoint--even if some academics would quibble with its accuracy--perfectly captures the layman’s perspective on realism:

“Realism is a skepticism as to whether moral concepts such as justice can be applied to the conduct of international affairs. Proponents of realism believe that moral concepts should never prescribe, nor circumscribe, a state's behaviour. Instead, a state should place an emphasis on state security and self-interest.”

This is what Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are providing their third of the electorate. It is an “us against them” view of the world. And in that view, if you aren’t us, you are eligible to die, even if you’re a civilian.

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz won’t have to pull the trigger on their own actions. They won’t have to live with the moral consequences of their calls to kill civilians. The US Army does and, as a result, has embraced Just War theory to maintain its moral compass. As General MacFarland said in response to Trump and Cruz, “At the end of the day, it doesn't only matter if you win, it matters how you win...Right now we have the moral high ground and I think that's where we need to stay.”

Perfect.

Mar 07

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.)

Obviously Republican candidates want to get the support of soldiers. They want to be loved by our heroes sooooo bad. One of the easiest ways to pander, er, support, this demographic is to lambast our military’s rules of engagement (ROE):

Marco Rubio: “I think the United States military is operating under rules of engagement that are too strict and that do not allow us to pursue victory. When I'm president, that will change.”

Jeb Bush: “Get the lawyers off the damn backs of the military once and for all.”

Ted Cruz: "We need to define the enemy. And we need to be focused and lift the rules of engagement so we're not sending our fighting men and women into combat with their arms tied behind their backs.”

As Slate summed it up, “'Rubio, Bush, and Cruz all said they’d loosen the rules of engagement that supposedly constrain U.S. forces...But they didn’t specify how they would do this...or what effect the loosening might have."

Well that “effect” is what we are talking about today. (And have touched on in the past.)

The rules of engagement are restrictions on when soldiers, sailors, and airmen can open fire. At its most basic, it means clearly identifying a target as your intended target before you fire your weapon, call for artillery, launch a torpedo, or drop a bomb.

ROE has two purposes. In high-intensity warfare, ROE is vital to ensure you don’t kill your fellow soldiers. That’s right: the biggest reason ROE exists is to protect your fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines from being killed. If you don’t clearly know your target, in maneuver warfare it is all too easy to kill a fellow soldier. (Which is probably not the effect politicians want when they say we need to loosen ROE.)

Second, rules of engagement coordinate the fire of your soldiers in accordance with the commander’s intent. In a simple example, think of soldiers lying in an ambush. In that situation, the ROE says, “Don’t shoot until the commander fires.” In a historical example, think of Joshua Chamberlain at the Battle of Gettysburg. He had his soldiers both hold their fire--so that a single volley devastated the Confederates--and later had them fix bayonets--which made it impossible to fire their weapons. In both cases, they had to wait for his command to fire on the enemy, risking their own lives as they did.

Critics of ROE broadly would, in some sense, forbid officers from being able to make such orders. If the Civil War had today’s media and politicians, would they be criticizing Chamberlain’s decision to, literally, prevent his soldiers from shooting, sacrificing many lives in the short term, to win the war in the long term?

Our current wars aren’t high-intensity, but the need for ROE is just as important. In a counterinsurgency, the rules of engagement ensure that amped-up, trained-for-high-intensity-warfare soldiers and marines only kill military targets. In layman’s terms, non-military targets are “civilians”. That’s right, innocent people. Losing them loses the war. Having ROE isn’t just a legal requirement, it helps commanders on the ground win the war.

Republican candidates--led by some milblogs in the conservative web-o-sphere--disagree that stringent ROE wins the war. Their theory is more along the lines of “the more bad guys you kill, the better, even if you take some innocent people with them”. So the biggest effect of loosening ROE is that you kill more non-military targets (and remember, potentially fellow soldiers in coalition forces, like our Afghan and Iraqi partners).

Some Republicans think this keeps “the troops” safe because they can defend themselves easier. Like the Civil War example above, the troops are probably safer in the short term, though the civilians around them are dramatically less safe. Killing some innocent civilians turns a lot more against you. Once you lose the population, you lose the war. The longer the war goes on, the longer all soldiers are in more danger.   

A cynic would take it a step further. Far from just hoping that the number of military target exceed the civilians killed, one could argue that, in fact, Republicans don’t care if they kill innocent civilians. Yes, there are some Republican politicians who want dead women and children in foreign countries. And to get that honest assessment, you have to turn to Donald Trump:

“'We’re fighting a very politically correct war,' he said in response to a question about avoiding civilian casualties. “And the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families. They, they care about their lives. Don’t kid yourself. But they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.”

And that is such a big nugget, such an immoral argument, we’ll have to debunk it in future posts.

Jan 20

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", please click here.)

As Michael C wrote about last week, the problems with police shootings are incredibly similar to the problems America faced fighting counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Editing that post, we realized we had at least three more connections between policing in America and counterinsurgency theory abroad.

1. Poor Community Relations

To bluntly summarize a major disagreement we had with the mainstream criticism of population-centric counterinsurgency: nation building works, but America (and its military) never really tried it.

Framing it simply, if you rebuild infrastructure (roads, power, cell phones, etc), provide healthcare, and stimulate the economy, the local population will have a really hard time hating you. If you’re a potential insurgent, you’re probably not going to hate the country or military that got you a job, cured your son’s club foot, and modernized your nation. But America and its military never committed to that strategy or vision of COIN. Most of the money that was spent was wasted or stolen, and way more money was spent on our soldiers’ welfare than on the local populations. (For example, Caesar salad and steak Fridays on Michael C’s base in Iraq.)

Same with local cities and municipalities in regards to poor communities. Again, probably summarizing too simply, in response to conservative pushes for lower taxes, many cities began using poor communities as a source of income to make up for lost tax revenue. (Instead of rebuilding infrastructure--a la Flint’s current water crisis--or providing quality education.) This includes cities that make citizens pay for their own legal proceedings, including being represented by a public defender, which is a constitutional right.

They then added fines on top of fines. Add to that the rise in plea bargaining instead of trials, and you have a system designed to make money at the expense of disadvantaged communities. For an anecdote, just look at Ferguson, Missouri, who went, “so far as to anticipate decreasing sales tax revenues and urging the police force to make up for the shortfall by ticketing more people.”

We haven't even mentioned civil forfeiture.

The COIN connection is pretty simple: relationships between poor, minority communities and police couldn’t be worse, and these policies explain why.

2. Night Raids

If you ask the door kickers in JSOC and SOCOM, one of the most effective tools of counter-terrorism is “night raids”. Using the advantage of darkness (because of our night vision goggles), our elite forces raid houses of suspected terrorists at night, without warning.

If you ask the civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the least effective tools of counter-insurgency is “night raids”. Why? Because when a raid goes poorly, the civilians inside usually die. As Frontline reported on it in their episode “Kill/Capture”, “botched raids and harrowing accounts from Afghan citizens have sparked protests and raised serious questions about whether the raids are alienating the local population in ways that fuel the insurgency’”. The episode features several emotionally jarring stories of innocent people being killed in fights with JSOC forces. Unfortunately, night raids have resumed in Afghanistan. (It's the opposite of above; you'd have a hard time supporting a country or government that just killed your family.)

In the US, the clearest equivalent to night raids is the “no-knock warrant”. Once a non-existent tactic just 20 years ago, then a special tactic only for extreme circumstances, police around America now conduct 20,000 to 40,000 no-knock raids a year. Radley Balko’s book Rise of the Warrior Cop has several examples of completely unneeded no-knock raids that resulted in dead (sometimes unarmed) citizens and the ACLU released a report in 2014.

This isn’t limited to just these SWAT raids. A lot of the policies that police use to keep safe--the same way night raids keep special operators safe or no-knock raids keep SWAT safe--escalate the danger in the long run. I’m thinking of stop and frisk, police militarization and warrantless searches. They also terrify the population.

3. De-escalation

Running through many, but not all, of the police shootings caught on tape in the last two years is the idea that the shootings were avoidable. In many cases, the police officers never attempted to deescalate the situation.

Take the John Crawford III shooting in a Wal-mart in Ohio. Police officers storm the Wal-mart after reports a man is waving the gun around. They don’t confirm the reports. They didn’t evacuate the people. They don’t even try to make contact with him. They just fired.

It is mind-boggling the police officers didn’t try to deescalate the situation. At no point do they try to avoid violence. If anything, they assume it is happening and try to preempt it. The result is a dead citizen. And in the John Crawford III situation (or Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and others), the path to de-escalation was so simple. A recent investigation by The Week shows that a majority of police departments don’t require officers to minimize violence or deescalate the situation.

The analogy to COIN is again obvious, but harder to implement during deployment. In counter-insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq, one of the common pieces of advice I heard was to act tough. I was told something like, “the toughest [expletive] doesn’t get messed with”. Basically, US forces had to strike fear in everyone so no one dared to attack us. This basically meant some units were escalating every situation they encountered. Including driving civilians off roads, raiding houses, zip tying innocent people, arresting innocent people and more.

Did it work in the long run? Of course not, but it kept units safe in the short term.

Jan 20

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", please click here.)

Toward the end of December, the Cleveland DA failed to secure a grand jury verdict in the tragic Tamir Rice shooting. (Summary, a boy playing with a toy gun was shot by police officers within seconds of them arriving on scene.) Radley Balko in the Washington Post and German Lopez on Vox both pleaded with fellow media members to distinguish between things that are “legal” and “things as they should be”. Ideally, those two things are aligned. In the case of police shootings, they aren’t.

The police officers in Cleveland were (maybe) legally justified. It doesn’t mean they should have fired their weapons.

I can’t help but read that distinction about policing and see a connection to counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, based on my experience in and studying those two countries. For deployed soldiers, there was a wide gap between what was legal and what we should be doing. As I wrote quite a bit when we launched the blog, a lot of the techniques, tactics and procedures units used on the ground directly undermined the mission...but they kept troops safe. Like police shooting, those tactics were legal (under UCMJ).

But the connection to COIN goes beyond the “what’s legal versus what’s right” distinction. Really policing and counterinsurgency are different stops on the same spectrum. Take Jamelle Bouie’s article on Tamir Rice. It screams counter-insurgency rights and wrongs. Here is his analysis of police officers putting their lives at risk:

“Part of policing is risk. Not just the inevitable risk of the unknown, but voluntary risk. We ask police to “serve and protect” the broad public, which--at times--means accepting risk when necessary to defuse dangerous situations and protect lives, innocent or otherwise. It’s why we give them weapons and the authority to use them; why we compensate them with decent salaries and generous pensions; why we hold them in high esteem and why we give them wide berth in procedure and practice.”

How does that sentence differ from a paragraph I would have written about soldiers deploying to Afghanistan at the height of the war? One of the inspirations of this blog was the amazing contradiction at the heart of being a soldier, “Mission First, People Always”. Soldiers deploy and care more about returning home safely than fighting to win the war. This is a perfectly natural feeling, but it probably says more about whether we should have fought a war in Iraq than anything else.

The difference between policing and COIN is we have to have police officers. It isn’t optional. And we need cops to serve in high-crime areas. That said, accepting risk as opposed to hurting innocent civilians is a prerequisite of the job.

But that leads into the last COIN connection. The policies that keep officers safe in the short term endanger them in the long run. Just like Afghanistan and Iraq. And I’m not just writing about the failed war on drugs (that most police departments support because it comes with tons of federal funding). As Bouie continued in his Slate piece:

“One last point: Changing this is in the best interest of police officers. Yes, abandoning “safety at all costs” means accepting additional risk. But it also means an emphasis on de-escalation in policing, which—in communities that need good policing—engenders more trust for police departments. With more trust comes more community cooperation and more resources for solving crime. The same is true for more and greater accountability. In the long run, both create safer environments for citizens and police.”

Just like in Afghanistan and Iraq, police forces can’t do it alone. Force alone does not cow a population. And unjust force or unfair laws make a society unstable. So stopping “suspicious individuals” may find drugs or weapons, but if those things are done without probable cause, then you are creating an aura of hostility.

The future of policing isn’t better weapons, more aggression or body cameras. It is about police departments that work within and with their communities. It isn’t about staying safe, but deescalating situations to keep everyone safe, both the police and the communities they protect.

Aug 10

(Today's guest post is by Joel Poindexter. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.)

“The surge worked.” A popular phrase at the conclusion of the final troop surge, it has again made its way into the discussion of U.S. operations in Iraq. As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has risen to power, politicians have taken to reviving this talking point. Depending on one’s definition of success, it’s debatable as to whether the surge did in fact work.

Officially “The New Way Forward,” by its own standards it did not achieve the stated goals. A series of benchmarks were established, which the Shi’a-backed Iraqi government was expected to achieve. As of the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, in December, 2011, few of the benchmarks had been satisfactorily met, in spite of the rhetoric of success. Nevertheless, there is at least one sense in which we can say the surge worked.

Most who are familiar with the surge no doubt associate it with the increase in U.S. troops in 2007. Five additional brigades were deployed, and most units had their rotations extended. This was meant to provide sufficient security in the capitol, to facilitate those benchmarks. What few likely understand is that a major component involved the establishment of a para-military force almost entirely made up of Sunni forces.

American commanders spent millions of dollars financing groups that went by Sons of Iraq (SOI) or Concerned Local Citizens (CLC). Many were formerly employed by Sunni militias, including al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI – an AQI affiliate), and some were known to have been members of AQI.

In late 2007 I was deployed to a small FOB south of Baghdad, and our battalion spent a lot of time (and money) hiring and managing SOI. The relationship was contentious, as neither group trusted the other. In our fifteen months there were several incidents involving “green on blue” gunfights, and reciprocal threats of IED attacks and airstrikes were exchanged.

SOI routinely complained of not being paid, despite monthly cash payments to village sheikhs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some intelligence suggested SOI leadership (AQI) was diverting payments to build reserves. These would be necessary when the U.S. military withdrew its forces, or if the Iraqi government failed to incorporate the SOI into the Iraqi security forces, according to the benchmarks.

No doubt the SOI programs helped insulate Sunni militias, and sustained them through the end of the U.S. occupation. But as significant as this aid was to ISIS, the element of the surge that really came to help the organization was the continued support of the Iraqi government.

By escalating the war in Baghdad, the U.S. military helped the Iraqi army (IA) and police (IP) all but complete the sectarian cleansing of the largest city. Various Shi’ite militia groups were represented in the IA and IP, both of which served the interests of the Badr Corps , the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM), and other groups allied or affiliated with the United Iraqi Alliance. The UIA controlled the country’s government, mainly for the benefit of the Shi’ite population.

While the U.S. fought both Shi’a and Sunni groups throughout the occupation, this period – and the surge effort in particular – focused mainly on routing Sunni forces intent on destabilizing the Iraqi government. This was supposed to provide the breathing room necessary to make some legislative reforms and begin reconciling the rival sectarian groups under one cooperative government.

But so long as U.S. commanders were supporting the Iraqi government, the Shi’a had no incentive to reconcile with the Sunni. Dr. Michael Izady’s work on the Gulf 2000 Project, through Columbia University, demonstrates this visually. In 2003 Shi’ites had a majority in Baghdad, but most of the city’s neighborhoods were mixed. By early 2007 few were home to both groups, and most the territory was controlled by Shi’a. At mid-2008 there were clear lines separating neighborhoods. When we flew over Baghdad that summer, it was easy to see how thousands of concrete barriers had effectively reduced the “city of peace” to sectarian ghettos.

So divided was the country following U.S. withdrawal, that despite the ruthlessness of ISIS, many Sunnis see the Caliph as the lesser evil between it and the Shi’a death squads of the national government. Had the U.S. not fought on behalf of the Shi’a in Baghdad, the government would have been forced to reconcile, eliminating much of the support for ISIS.

(Note: This argument assumes the invasion and occupation as given, and of course both were significant in leading to the Islamic State. The support of rebel groups in Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra, the Northern Storm Brigade, and others) also cannot be discounted.)

Joel Poindexter was an infantryman and intelligence analyst in the US Army from 2003-2009. He served in Baghdad in 2005, and Iskandariyah in 2007-2008. Follow him on Twitter.

Dec 10

(Today's guest post is by Francis Conliffe. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.)

The current US approach to counter-terrorism is based on targeted kill-capture missions. This approach has been described as industrial counter-terrorism in Iraq, and is today associated with drone strikes and shadowy prisons, of which Guantanamo Bay is the best known. While this approach may be productive in terms of body counts, it is counter-productive in terms of image and international legitimacy. But there is an alternative approach.

During the 1990s, Yugoslavia imploded in a horrific civil war fraught with war crimes and atrocities. In 1993 the United Nations called for establishing an international tribunal to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity, resulting in the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal Yugoslavia.

This court had little actual prosecution to do at first as the General Framework Agreement for Peace, also known as the Dayton Accord was not signed until 1995. The Accord called for a “safe and secure environment,” and compelled the three signatories (Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks) to “cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law.” Those responsible for violations became known as “Persons Indicted For War Crimes” or PIFWCs. Little traction was gained at first, as the three parties had little incentive to turn in and prosecute their own people, and the United Nations Protection Force was not pursuing war criminals. The NATO Stabilisation Force (SFOR) which came into effect in 1996 had the mandate to “provide a 'safe and secure environment',” and noted that “the presence of PIFWCs is a major obstruction to the peace process.” But there was a problem: American forces were initially reluctant to pursue war criminals, retaining bad memories of man hunts in Somalia, and saw the exercise as counter-productive to the mission.

While a number of PIFWCs actually turned themselves in, it was not until 1997 that SFOR started actively pursuing PIFWCs. This activity was the domain of coalition special forces, who would conduct snatch missions. Prisoners were then handed over to Military Police, received medical examinations, and upon arrival at The Hague, received legal counsel. It is worth noting that this was not some “soft” police-style mission. A number of PIFWCs were killed while resisting capture.

The Chief Prosecutor of the War Crimes Tribunal, Louise Arbour, pushed hard for SFOR to pursue war criminals. She noted that the legal process is “a process whereby if we are successful, we will assist a people in letting go of what it believes to be its war heroes, by exposing them as criminals.” The trials have proved to be an effective way of bringing reconciliation to the war-torn region and bringing justice to those who have committed egregious crimes. As noted above, not all indicted survived to see trial. Further, not all who were tried were convicted. Numerous parties have criticised The Tribunal for expense and bias, but no criminal system is without critics. There would be harsher criticism if all indicted were simply executed.

The US used to approach terrorism as a criminal problem. This approach was criticised as leading to conflict between Defence and Justice, with the DoD excusing itself from the problem and Justice lacking the resources to really pursue terrorists.

That has clearly changed in recent years, and perhaps the DoD has now taken too much of a lead in the process. DoD has demonstrated the capability to pursue individuals. It may be time to marry that capability with a judicial capability, modeled on the ICTY, in order to bring terrorists to legal justice. It is not too late to adjust course on the approach to counter-terrorism, and a more law-based approach would earn back much legitimacy that has been lost in a decade of secret prisons, torture and targeting boards. It would also result in a more transparent way to view those involved in terrorism, bringing clarity to the respective importance of each accused individual. Just as some of the PIFWCs facing trial at The Hague were low level operatives, while others were the “masterminds” and instigators, so too some accused terrorists are simple foot soldiers while others are key leaders. Currently, they are all treated the same way, facing at best a life in limbo in questionable prison, or at worst facing death by RPV strike.

The USA could change the narrative of the war by bringing these people before trial and, as Louise Arbour stated, exposing their supposed heroes as criminals.

Francis Conliffe is an Armour officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. He has served in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Jan 15

(Normally, we start the year with our “Most Intriguing Event of the Year”. But since Lone Survivor hit theaters across the country on January 10th, we’re devoting this week to that topic.

To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

If a counter-insurgency lesson happens on a hill-side in Afghanistan, and Americans don’t care, did anyone ever really learn it?

As the most popular memoir and film about Afghanistan, Lone Survivor now has the subtle distinction of being the single most popular piece of media about Afghanistan...period. (To everyone who comments, “Why are you still writing about this?” That’s one reason why.) Since Lone Survivor has lots of subtle (and not-so-subtle) counter-insurgency lessons embedded in the narrative, the book and the movie will have a profound effect on American’s understanding of counter-insurgency warfare.

Most viewers of Lone Survivor won’t realize that sound counter-insurgency practices actually saved Marcus Luttrell’s life on that hillside on that fateful June day. While I don’t fault Peter Berg for trying to tell a tight story centered almost entirely on the battle, this focus skews Americans’ understanding of COIN. Worse, some of Berg’s decisions (like the final battle) will irrevocably mislead Americans on how politics works in Afghanistan.

Here are some counter-insurgency lessons largely missed in the both the Lone Survivor film:

1. The villagers who rescued Luttrell--including Gulab--did so as much for politics as for pashtun-wali.

To be clear, Gulab’s adherence to the Afghanistan cultural behavior commonly called in the West “pashtun-wali” motivated Mohammed Gulab to shelter Marcus Luttrell. However, another key motivating factor was the extremely local politics in the extremely divisive Kunar province.

As Ed Darack describes in Victory Point:

The people of the Shuryek Valley, into which the gulch fed, had traditionally been at odds with villagers of the Korangal Valley, particularly those of Chichal, bumping heads over grazing-land boundaries. And while not overly friendly to American forces, people on the Shuryek side of the Sawtalo Sar hadn’t proved nearly as supportive of anticoalition militia forces as those of the Korangal.” (page 148)

To make a very crude analogy, after getting in a firefight with the Bloods, Luttrell was rescued by the Crips. So yes, Gulab rescued Luttrell because his honor, but it didn’t hurt that Gulab could hurt his political rivals in the process. If Luttrell had fallen down the other side of the mountain, even pashtun-wali wouldn’t have saved his life.

Even that depiction, though, is too simplistic. Afghan politics, riven for years by civil war, are incredibly complicated. One paragraph won’t do it justice.

Neither will a two hour film. Most media portrayals boil the politics of Afghanistan down to Taliban/evil versus America/good. Most people in Afghanistan don’t fall neatly into one side or the other. Instead, almost every villager I met with also met with insurgents. A simple “good versus evil” story fails to capture this nuance.

2. Salar Ban had an excellent relationship with coalition forces in the region due to a sound counter-insurgency strategy executed by the marines in Kunar.

The marines stationed in Kunar--specifically Camp Blessing--went above and beyond to develop positive relationships with locals. (I don’t have time in this post to tell the entire story, so read Victory Point pages 148-154 for the details). They expanded the “soft” side of military operations, including Medical Civil Action Patrols. While the Korengalis weren’t receptive to this outreach (as they have been historically hostile to outsiders), villagers in the Shuryak valley were. One of these villagers was Mohammad Gulab, who eventually rescued Luttrell. As Victory Point describes it, by using positive outreach relationships took a “quantum leap forward”.

This explains why he was out in the hillsides following the attack in Operation Red Wings. He was looking for Luttrell to help out the Americans. As Gulab himself told it on the Today Show:

Gulab said he had been trying to warn Luttrell.

“I was trying to tell him I wasn't Taliban. I know that many enemy was looking for him in the mountains," he said through a translator. "And I was trying to warn him that you must be careful."

Frankly, the gains the marines made were incredible, and laid the groundwork so that, when Gulab saw a bleeding and dying Luttrell, he would remember the goodwill Americans in the region had extended him. Any scenes involving marines working in day-to-day counter-insurgency obviously didn’t make it into the film.

3. Ahmad Shah deeply understood local politics and understood counter-insurgency theory.

The film makes Shah out to be a one-note, blood-thirsty tyrant. Lone Survivor (film) introduces Shah to viewers by having him march into Gulab’s village and chop someone’s head off. (Screenplay page 3a-5) The screenplay even describes him as a villain from the Wild West. No, literally,“This Shah and crew feels like an old school western bad guy moving through a cow town.”

Now, compare that description to Marcus Luttrell’s memoir:

The Taliban moves around these mountains only by the unspoken approval tacit permissions of the Pashtuns, who grant them food and shelter.” (pg. 284)

The jihadists seem to have a some kind of hammerlock on tribal loyalties, using a whole spectrum of Mafia-style tactics, sometimes with gifts, sometimes with money, sometimes with promising protections, sometimes without outright threats. The truth is, however, neither al Qaeda or the Taliban could function without the cooperation of the Pashtun villages.” (pg. 311)

This armed gang of tribesman, who were hell-bent on driving out the Americans and the government, could not function up here in these protective mountains entirely alone. Without local support their primitive supply line would perish. Armies need food, cover and cooperation, and the Taliban could only engage in so much bullying before these powerful village leaders decided they preferred the company of the Americans.” (pg. 341)

In reality, Shah was more politician than gangster. As the above quotes show, he had to work with and court the support of the locals in the valley.

Unlike the decision to leave out the marines, which I understand from a plot standpoint, this decision was made to paint a simpler, and less realistic, story. Just imagine another, more realistic scene. A Taliban shura. Gulab is there as are dozens of village elders, drinking tea. Shah makes his case that he could keep out the Americans and hunt any who come to the Sawtalo Sar. This scene would capture the “essential experience” or the “truth” of Operation Red Wings better than the scene in the film. Yet, Peter Berg chose a deliberately provocative and relatively rare phenomenon over a mild-mannered and realistic shura scene.

Worse, the true life events would have worked fine in this film. Imagine...

- a scene where Gulab explains to Luttrell why Ahmad Shah couldn’t enter the village.

- a scene where Gulab discusses why Shah needs local support.

- a scene where Shah explains to his own men why he doesn’t simply march in and kill everyone in Salar Ban. (Which would also make him three-dimensional and realistic.)

- a scene of Shah evacuating to Pakistan within days after the attack….like he did in real life.

Any of those scenes would have been radical and extraordinary. But keeping Shah as a blood-thirsty tyrant/terrorist fits with American stereotypes much better.

4. Ahmad Shah would never have attacked fellow Afghan villagers.

In the film Lone Survivor, Ahmad Shah attacks the village of Salar Ban in one last attempt to grab Luttrell. In real life, he didn’t.

What matters isn’t that Shah didn’t attack; it’s why he didn’t attack. Ahmad Shah didn’t invade the village of Salar Ban because he knew that he would lose support of the local people and the valley if he hurt the villagers. As Luttrell himself writes:

And then we both heard the opening bursts of gunfire, high up in the village.

“There was a lot of it. Too much. The sheer volume of fire was ridiculous, unless the Taliban were planning to wipe out the entire population of Sabray. And I knew they would not consider that because such a slaughter would surely end all support from these tribal villages up here in the mountain.

“No, they would not do that. They wanted me, but they would never kill another hundred Afghan people...in order to get me…

“These lunatics…[were] firing randomly into the air and aiming at nothing…” (pg. 339)

“...they had not dared to conduct a house-to-house search for fear of further alienating the people and, in particular, the village elder.” (pg. 341)

All armies fight under political constraints. Some have fewer constraints than others, but they all have limits on the violence they can inflict in war. This applies to insurgents in Afghanistan. While Shah certainly would have killed Luttrell had he surrendered or not (a violation of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime), he still prevented his men from attacking other Afghan villagers, because this would have cost him support.

You won’t learn any of these lessons from the film. Lone Survivor (film) ends with a gigantic battle as the Taliban invade Gulab’s village. This doesn’t make sense (nor happened). As Luttrell explains above, such an attack would verge on suicidal for Shah. To get back to the theme of these posts--why accuracy matters in the Lone Survivor film--there isn’t a compelling reason for including the final firefight. It didn’t take place in real life, and it doesn’t somehow capture Marcus Luttrell’s experience any better than not including it.

And it permanently misinforms viewers of the film.

Everyone keeps saying that Americans don’t understand the wars that we’re fighting. That so few people were in the military, and we can’t relate to their stories. But Lone Survivor (film) had more advisors than a medieval prince. Yet none of the SEALs on set pointed out these nuanced counter-insurgency lessons to Peter Berg.

(That, unfortunately, probably has more to do with the state of counter-insurgency theory and its adoption in the special operations world than anything else.)

Jul 17

(In the ongoing, never-ending and ceaseless debate over counter-insurgency, Michael C has a unique take: the Army/Pentagon/military never truly embraced COIN and is actively running away from it. Today, he presents another piece of evidence. Click here to read the rest of the series.)

After reading the first draft of my post on building more urban training centers, Eric C called me up and asked, “Michael, what about the freeways? Did the U.S. Army build any of those to practice on?” I told him, “Of course not, America won’t go to war with countries that have freeways.”

Except for...

China:

Iran:

Libya, who will soon be a part of the Tripoli-Cape town Highway:

Syria:

Oh, and Iraq has some freeways in it too, including Route Michigan or “IED alley”.

(Honest to God, we looked up North Korean freeways and couldn’t find them. Apparently, America is training for war with North Korea.)

As Eric C rightfully pointed out, we don’t just need urban training centers, we need combat centers with fake freeways and roads. Preferably, freeways and roads that mimic messy urban centers.

Because you train how you fight. The fight will be on freeways.