Mar 07

Last Wednesday, I used an analogy about “swords and shields” to describe the the two types of violence in a counter-insurgency. A lot of “war-is-war”iors want us to use the sword more in Afghanistan. They don’t realize that we already use the sword plenty.

We just aren’t very good at it.

Counter-force operations are primarily the domain of special operations troops, mainly Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, Delta Force/CAG, Army Rangers and other units who fall under the Joint Special Operations Command. Conventional troops try to get in on the counter-force missions too. Whoever is doing it, we aren’t killing nearly enough Taliban/insurgents to win the war outright.

Here are a few problems with our counter-force/offensive operations in Afghanistan.

1. Lack of intelligence. Our “special” troops don’t have access to the same level of intelligence as our maneuver forces. A special forces team usually works in the same size area as a conventional battalion. That battalion has over thirteen platoons--with attachments--constantly patrolling and collecting human intelligence. Yet special operations troops don’t mix well with conventional troops, particularly when they come from outside a province to conduct an operation. Conventional forces usually don’t share information with the special operations folks. This means bad intelligence. Bad intelligence means dead civilians.

Look back through all the allegations of atrocities or major civilian casualties in the last few years. They almost always involve special operations troops. Conventional units live and patrol where they conduct operations; they almost always know where the civilians live or don’t live.

Even conventional troops suffer from bad intelligence. Our dearth of trained and experienced human intelligence collectors--especially non-contractors willing to leave the wire--hampers operations on a daily basis. Further, none of our human intelligence folks speak Dari or Pashtun (or so small a minority as to be insignificant).

2. We’re too heavy. Think heavy as in mechanized. Whenever the “special” guys go anywhere, they go with helicopters, AC-130 gun ships, and often a hundred Afghan special operators (who aren’t that bad really). U.S. conventional forces do the same thing, usually without an AC-130, and with regular Afghanistan National Army folks.

While the exact details are classified, ISAF sets minimum patrol sizes--either number of vehicles or number of men who have to go on the patrol. While the actual details are subject to operational security, understand that this drastically hampers the ability of U.S. forces to surprise the enemy. Helicopters make noise. Vehicles make noise. Any number of ground troops over six makes a bunch of noise. Heavy equipment, like body armor, makes noise.

Noise does not equal surprise.

3. It is tough terrain to kill the enemy. The terrain in Afghanistan provides the enemy with excellent stand off. They can see us from a long way off, and respond accordingly, especially if we are rolling heavy. If the Afghan insurgents used Russian built tanks, no problem. As irregular fighters, it is devastating.

In Konar province, the enemy hid out on mountaintops. We knew this. Trying to get there was the hard part. Even for special operations, getting to these areas with hundreds of people usually yields no bad guys. The helicopters flying in give everything away.

I have a solution to these dilemmas on Wednesday. It’s risky. It’s not terribly original. It would violate ISAF minimum patrol requirements, but it would work.

Mar 02

(To read the entire "war is war” series, please click here.)

Bing West made an appearance on The Colbert Report last week, and his thoughts are illustrative:

“You are dealing with honest to goodness stone killers who believe in this Islamist version of history and the only way you can deal with them is to put them down in the earth. And as long as we try to win hearts and minds, we’re diverting ourselves.”

“American soldiers, handcuffed by strict rules of engagement, have surrendered the initiative to their enemies.”

“We’re winning hearts and minds. We’ve been doing it for ten years. And at some point we have to say, why would they still be allowing people to do this if they were on our side. And the answer is you have to win the war first.”

“The third thing we should do is just take our troops and get them back to warfighting.”

Yep, illustrative of the “war is war” position. Mr. West, welcome to the club.

Bing West gets to the heart of my criticism with “war-is-war”-iors, whose philosophy I’ve been debunking over this series of posts. They want to kill more bad guys, but don’t care to offer an alternative. I do, however, have an outlandish idea for how to kill more bad guys. To get there, I first have to explain a couple of things. Today, I am going to describe the two uses of violence in a counter-insurgency: security and counter-force.

All violence isn’t created equal, in warfare. Said more clearly, all violence doesn’t have the same purpose. By violence, I mean the confluence of maneuver and fires to kill the enemy. Some violence is offensive and deliberate in nature; other times it is reactive and defensive. Both are necessary, and a counter-insurgent most be versed in both.

Most of the time a counter-insurgent is defensive, focused on the security of the local population. Think of this like a shield. The counter-insurgent patrols roads to fend off IEDs. The counter-insurgent walks down the street to prevent crimes. The counter-insurgent places themselves between the insurgents and the population. Security patrols don’t set out to cause violence, but deny the insurgent the ability to operate easily.

Security isn’t just the realm of foreign counter-insurgents or even the government. In Iraq, the best example of security patrolling were the Awakening groups that rose up. Afghanistan has failed to create a similar movement, and its primary security force, the Afghan National Police, are inordinately corrupt.

When “war-is-war”iors preach their gospel about getting “back to warfighting”, what they mean is conducting more “counter-force” operations. This is the other branch of counter-insurgency, the sword (sometimes called the stick, though On Violence doesn’t compare other people to animals).

Counter-force missions attempt to kill or capture the insurgency. This means raids, counter-sniper missions and specialized reconnaissance designed to fight the enemy, the insurgent and other destabilizing forces. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Army tries to do this all the time. Tries. We call it “targeting”. Usually, because of a lack of intelligence (that comes from good security operations), the missions don’t yield dead bad guys, and the threat networks can easily rebuild.

“War-is-war”-iors often don’t understand this nuanced role of violence in warfare. When they say they want us to “win the war first”, “war-is-war”-iors really mean they want a different ratio of offensive to defensive operations. That doesn't sound nearly as hardcore. Sometimes they advocate softening our Rules of Engagement. All this does is risk more civilians during security operations. That harms our strategy in the long run.

I’ll admit, you can’t win a battle with only a shield. “War-is-war”-iors love to compare us COINdinistas to care bears more concerned with “winning hearts and minds” than killing.

I’m not. I know that we need to have a sword and a shield. Whether that sword should be precise like an Epee or unwieldy like a broad sword, that is what we’ll discuss on Monday, when I'll explain why the military--especially Special Operations troops--fails to kill bad guys in Afghanistan.

(I first came across the term “counter-force” in this manuscript called the “Tao of Counter-Insurgency”.)

Sep 20

Back in June I wrote a post about how terrorists have rules of engagement. Though they come from a completely different culture, Islamic terrorists still have an extremist ideology that governs their ability to fight war.

In other words, they have rules of engagement.

As if to prove my point, in the Spring issue of The Journal of International and Security Affairs, Mary R. Habeck penned an article called the “Jihadist Laws of War”. Ms. Habeck doesn’t use the same terminology, but she describes the various fatwas that al Qaeda created to regulate its fight against America, detailing how al Qaeda views the issues of combatants versus non-combatants, prisoners of war, and the spoils of war. Not surprisingly, they all radically diverge from the Western Laws of War, but terrorist ROE does exist.

Of course, al Qaeda’s rules of engagement lack any restraint when it comes to Westerners or non-Sunni Muslims. Osama Bin Laden and his followers “established that citizens of the United States were combatants” regardless of whether they wield weapons or not. Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi would later twist rulings on combatants versus non-combatants “to declare all Shi’a--men, women and children--worthy of death.”

All of which I find interesting because al Qaeda is concerned with perceived legitimacy from the larger Islamic world. They feel the need to justify their actions in an Islamic context. Even though they twist Islamic law to endorse the murder of innocents, they desire religious approval--probably because deep down al Qaeda knows they are flying in the face of accepted Islamic law.

Mary Habeck makes this point very well, that terrorist (or takfiri or extremist) ideology does not meet the standards imposed by mainstream Islam. She admits that “salafi jihadis number...a tiny minority within the Muslim-majority world.” She also notes that Osama bin Laden specifically “uses violence to undo the interpretations of modern Islam.”  In sum, al Qaeda has rejected “both international legal norms and modern Islamic law.” If all US decision-makers mentioned this discrepancy more--and supposed “Ground Zero Mosques” less--we might actually have a shot at stopping extremists.

Mary Habeck’s article provides amazing insight on how al Qaeda views this conflict, a view many more US diplomats, intelligence officials and military officers need. It also proves a point I have had about ROE for years: insurgents and terrorists have rules of engagement, they just don’t look like ours.

But they have rules of engagement.

Sep 13

(Real quick: technical issues stopped this post from going up last Thursday. We'll be back on schedule this week.

Two weeks ago, I looked back at some of my earlier posts on the Rules of Engagement. One post described techniques US Soldiers use(d) to skirt the RoE in Iraq. Today I describe a technique used in Afghanistan.)

In Afghanistan, the Rules of Engagement are simple: soldiers can only shoot at targets they can see, targets that are directly threatening their lives. Putting it simply, this sucks. Ask any Afghan combat veteran. In that rugged countryside determining the exact location of the enemy, or even seeing him, verges on impossible.

Soldiers presented with tough ROE, and tough fighting conditions, often find work-arounds. In Afghanistan, they developed “observer training.”

“Observer training” means someone--the Forward Observer, the Platoon Leader or even just Soldiers--calls a fire mission, then the artillery or mortars fire that mission. If you are off target, you correct until the rounds go right where you need them to go. It is a vital skill for Soldiers, and has been since World War I.

In Afghanistan, many units realized if they called up a mission as “observer training” they could fire at suspected enemy locations. Now, these areas had to be empty of civilians, or at least not populated areas, but they could have rounds fired into them.
Here’s an example of abusing “observer training.” Armies have been intercepting radio signals since World War I. And shortly after they started intercepting them, they learned to find the direction they were broadcast from. The US Army can figure out the location of insurgent radios; many times, we can come close to pinpointing the locations of insurgent command and control (C2) cells.

Yet, that isn’t, in most cases, positive identification. Especially, if they are far out of range from the actual battle, all we know is a location is broadcasting. If a battle is going, and the right code words are being used, then we are close to a positive identification. Unfortunately, we still aren’t there, and that is why units conduct “observer training.” Using hunches and suspicions, and labeling their actions “observer training,” units can get away with firing at the enemy (or what they suspect is the enemy).

But all of this misses the most important point about using "observer training" to fire on suspected enemy positions: it does not work. Firing at unknown locations in the hopes of killing enemy based on scant intelligence does not work. In Afghanistan, our Army frequently protects itself with firepower, even though this makes us weak in the long run.

Sep 02

When General McChrystal took command of all international troops in Afghanistan last June, the rules of engagement became the hot new topic for politicos debating our policies in Afghanistan. Since General Petraeus replaced him, the number of pundits opining about policies “tying our Soldiers hands behind their backs” has only increased; Congress is contemplating legislation on this issue.

As a huge fan of both population-centric counter-insurgency and restrictive/tight Rules of Engagement, I have issues with these criticisms, which can be seen in some of my earliest posts at On Violence.

- In “Arcs of Fire”, I describe how our weapons are designed to saturate an area with lead and explosives, not the ideal weapon for a precision counter-insurgent.

- In “Dropped Weapons, Dropped Opportunities”, I talk about a technique common during the Iraq war to avoid prosecution for possible war crime violation.

- In “Why Overwhelming Firepower Backfires”, I take a common military tenet--overwhelming firepower leads to victory--and show that, in a counter-insurgency, it really doesn’t.

These early posts weren’t just about the rules of engagement; in many ways, they were more about good counter-insurgency. The rules are the same either way though, the principle behind them.

Particularly, my post on “dropped weapons” still strikes home. Even with great policies, Soldiers will try to figure out ways to game the system. Unless the know the principles behind the policy, the why behind their actions (which at times put them in very dangerous situations) they won’t do the right thing. Next week, I am going to talk about a tactic I saw in Afghanistan that skirts the rules of engagement.

Jul 14

On Monday, I described an ethical dilemma that supposedly shows how America’s extra-restrictive rules of engagement endanger our troops. Today I am going to debunk that story. (Click here to re-read it.) This hypothetical doesn’t prove that rules of engagement (ROE)--even really restrictive rules of engagement--are immoral or ineffective.

Monday’s story obscures the most important part of the story: the facts. The narrator barely describes the woman in question. Was she hysterical or calm? Was she screaming or quiet? Did she try to communicate to anyone in the platoon? She might seem like a spotter, but if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it is that our troops lack cultural awareness. They are even worse at trying to divine the intentions of locals who don’t speak English.

Yet the story was told to me with a certainty that is impossible to find through the fog of war.

Other facts are questionable as well. Where is the sniper exactly? If his fire is so accurate, why aren’t there more Marines casualties? Did the Marines have a time crunch? Was this a single operation or a larger battalion-sized mission? The point is we don’t know. And if we don’t know all the facts, the we have to question our conclusions.

To really go meta with this analysis, though, I need to explain why the facts are obscured. To do so, I am going to borrow from Eric C’s tool kit, and use literary criticism. Basically, we have a unreliable narrator, with a clear agenda: proving that ROE gets Soldiers killed. The best way to do this is to limit the options of the Marines to either kill, or be killed.

Like the last ethical dilemma I criticized, the Marines have more than two options. In fact, they have dozens. A Marine platoon has several different weapon systems to employ against a sniper, from machine guns to rifles to A-10 warthogs. They also have access to higher headquarters, and the additional resources they bring to the fight. The Marines could have maneuvered around the building or held their position until nightfall. They could have tried the back door. They could have waited until someone could spot the sniper. They could have tried to detain the woman, or at the very least, they could have tried to communicate with the woman.

But the narrator who wants to prove how bad ROE is will never give you ten options, he will make it a dilemma. This or that. Violate ROE, or be killed.

And this is a false dichotomy.

Jul 12

During Lone Survivor Week, I argued that Marcus Luttrell’s memoir is really just a 300 page ethical dilemma. And that I hate dilemmas, especially those that try to prove a political point.

In Luttrell’s case, the political agenda is our rules of engagement, following a long line of conservative commentators who make up hypotheticals to show the “stupidity” of our rules of engagement. Way back during my infantry training at Fort Benning, we discussed rules of engagement, and I heard an ethical dilemma designed to prove why they are wrong. Today, I am going to simply tell the story as it was told to me. On Wednesday, I will show why it is total malarkey.

The scene: downtown Baghdad. The time: before 2006. A Marine platoon is pinned down by a sniper and they can’t locate his firing position. Fire rains down on their positions when suddenly, from the front of the building, a woman emerges.

She goes outside, looks at all the Marines on the street, and goes back inside. The sniper fire instantly gets more accurate.

The woman comes out again. And again. Each time she leaves the building, the sniper fire closes in on the Marine platoon.

The Marines are trapped in an ethical dilemma, the speaker told me. They could shoot the woman, but they would be violating the rules of engagement because she didn't have a weapon. Or they could try to assault the building, but then risk massive casualties. The dilemma: shoot the woman and violate ROE, or let your own men get killed. The key? The men on the ground knew, for sure, that she was spotting for the enemy sniper.

Is this an ethical dilemma? Does it show how “stupid” restrictive rules of engagement are? Does this cause unnecessary risk to our Soldiers and Marines? I’ll provide my answer (No) on Wednesday.

Jul 06

Two weeks ago, I took apart Marcus Luttrell's Lone Survivor for claiming that insurgents don’t have rules of engagement (ROE). Insurgents have rules of engagement; they just don’t follow the Geneva Conventions. What Luttrell--and other critics of the ROE--really mean is that insurgents don’t have our rules of engagement, a statement that should shock no one.

Why don't insurgents have our ROE? A few reasons...

First, an insurgent leader can't control his fighters like an industrial military, and thus can't enforce their ROE with the discipline of the West. While a US Soldier could face court martial for disobeying ROE, an insurgent leader must use influence, intimidation and violence to control his men. Insurgent ROE reflects the reality of their situation, and is much more flexible.

Insurgent leaders don't write down their rules of engagement because they don't have the ability to distribute it. It's not like insurgents have the vast bureaucracies the Western armies maintain do. They have to use shuras or messengers, or even video tapes made in the hills of Pakistan. The point is they can't distribute an email or memo through a super-bureaucracy like the US. This is why their ROE will never be as strict or as documented as ours.

Second, insurgents also have a fundamentally different viewpoint of counter-insurgency/insurgency warfare than the Western armies. An insurgent is never on safe ground. He lives off the people, so for him the population is an active participant in the war. They also have drastically better intelligence, so they know who is really fighting in the insurgency and who isn't. Oh, and we wear uniforms.

But one reason above all explains why insurgent ROE doesn't look like American or Western ROE: an insurgent army doesn’t have the capabilities or firepower of a Western military.

Take this exchange from Ben M’Hidi in Battle for Algiers. When asked, “Isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs, which have taken so many innocent lives?” Ben M’hidi responds, “Isn’t it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more? Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.”

I’m not advocating for insurgents. Just War Theory, on which rules of engagement are based, is the reason I joined the military. It explains why good Armies need to exist. I hate the insurgent's rules of engagement because it doesn't limit civilian casualties.

But none of this shocks me. Their tactics and weapons don’t look familiar either, so why would their ROE?