Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Less Peril for Civilians, but More for Troops." No Kidding, It's Called War.

Ann Scott Taylor has a front-page article in today's Post on the effects of the recent changes in the rules in engagement in Afghanistan with regard to the use of air and artillery fires. There are a couple of anecdotes in this article that concern me if they are true that tell of fires being held for no specific reason in heavy battles in which US servicemen are being killed. It seems that that concern is what this piece is trying to prompt.

In the second story about the Marine advisory team that was ambushed, a relative of one of the casualties stated that he or she had been told that women and children had been feeding ammo to the insurgents engaging the Marines. And yet they had been denied artillery support because of the new rules. (The first story should be well known to our readers now - LCpl Bernard and comments from his father, a retired USMC 1st Sgt and Vietnam veteran).

First of all, if the women and children were feeding ammo to the enemy (whoever they were), then they lose their noncombatant status. Plain and simple - it is not a situation of collateral damage. Obviously it's up to the commander on the ground to decide whether or not to engage in that instance - but it's just that: the commander's decision.

Second, and at the risk of sounding like a heartless bastard, the family members of casualties are not a good source of what happened on the battlefield. On top of being inexpert on the environment and not actually being on the ground, their grief and helplessness in the situation skews their perspective on what happened. They look for reasons why this tragedy had occurred to their loved one that has destroyed the lives that they knew. I am not saying that the story is wrong or inaccurate, I'm just saying that it is one perspective. The allegations of which should (and probably were) looked into. But their saying so doesn't make it so. I won't go into details, but I've dealt with lots of problems of this nature when I was deployed - it's the nature of modern warfare. This also ties back to a previous post I wrote on expertise.

That said, the other thing that bothers me about this article is the use of Vietnam vets as expert opinion to members of the Senate who are looking into the ROE. SEN Susan Collins cited 1st Sgt. Bernard and his letter discussing strategic interests in theater and other issues (to include the fact that Afghans "hate us anyway") that lead to his son's death. And SEN Mark Begich cited an Army colonel who served in Vietnam which lead the good Senator to say "You know, we're engaged or we're not. We're not halfway in." While I appreciate their service and insight, let's get something straight. The way in which the U.S. conducts wars has changed drastically in the last 30 years. ROE recommendations from Vietnam vets, based on their Vietnam experience, is about as welcome, I'm sure, as WWII vets' recommendations to them in Vietnam. You cannot allow liberal fires policies that kill lots of civilians to be used. Period. On top of bad policy, it's bad morality. To us, our soldiers and Marines are very valuable and should be used only when our strategic interests warrant putting their lives at risk. But they are willing combatants whereas civilians are not. The lives of Afghan civilians are not cheaper than those of any other human life. And killing lots of civilians unnecessarily is counterproductive to our mission in Afghanistan, whether we're doing CT or COIN or even if it's in the interest of force protection. Unnecessarily is the operative word and where we've failed before in Afghanistan.

Now that that's all out of the way, it does sound as if a review of the ROE should be done. The enemy has adapted well to it and uses it to their advantage. That's fine, they're going to do that no matter what the ROE is. But it sounds as if commanders are hesitant to pull a trigger because of the message the ROE sends, even if they should have. That's not good. I've said before, CAS and artillery should be used in this fight. It just needs to be used smartly.


  1. Understand and agree with your point on family members assessing/commenting on battlefield actions. However, in the action cited in the WaPo article, original reports on civilian support to insurgents came from a reporter embedded with the team, Jonathan Landay, McClatchy news:

    "Lt. Fabayo and several other soldiers later said they'd seen women and children in the village shuttling ammunition to fighters positioned in windows and roofs."

    Also from the McClatchy article:

    "U.S. commanders, citing new rules to avoid civilian casualties, rejected repeated calls to unleash artillery rounds at attackers dug into the slopes and tree lines — despite being told repeatedly that they weren't near the village."

  2. That McClatchy article really has some legs, but the facts given in the article don't add up and don't jibe. There is a lengthy discussion on it at SWJ. BLUF - the reporter does not explain why fire missions were denied and his facts suggest that the fire missions were either unfeasible, unavailable, or some other problem, other than "denied." He is also unable to connect the actions on the ground to any ROE.