More on Marine Deaths and Rules of Engagement

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 2 months ago

Tim Lynch has weighed in on the issue, and I don’t want to steal Tim’s thunder – so visit his site and read the entire post.  It’s well worth the time.  But some of what he has to say is given below.

Tonight LtCol Kenny is in the Kunar Province taking over for one of  his team leaders who was wounded during an ambush at a small little shit hole called Ganjagal yesterday morning.  Four of his Marines were killed in that fight.  That is grim work for a commander and I feel for my friend Jeff.  There was a reporter (Jonathan Landy) from McClatchy news service embedded for this mission and his story is here.  It seems that indirect and air delivered fires were denied to the men in contact because the Taliban had ambushed them using a village as cover and that would fall outside the newest use of force guidelines.  As is most often the case Herschel Smith at the Captains Journal is out in front of the issue and his reasoned assessment can be found here.

The news reports indicated that the four Marines who were killed in this fight were hit in the opening moments of the ambush and therefore it is not reasonable to assume that the liberal application of artillery or air delivered ordinance could have saved them.  This is the way combat often works – the side on the receiving end takes casualties as the ambush goes off and then both sides enter into a protracted skirmish of fire and maneuver until one side breaks contact or breaks in the face of aggressive maneuver and/or fire.  In this fight it is clear that the Afghan/American team was set up and walked into an ambush.  It is also very clear that their ability to extract themselves from that ambush was hampered by the refusal of higher headquarters to allow indirect fires due to the proximity of local non combatants in the village.  It also seems that the women and children were busy shuttling ammunition to the entrenched fighters and therefore vulnerable to the effects of said ordinance.

This is Afghanistan.   The new commander, Gen McChrystal has promulgated orders designed to further limit collateral damage. I applaud his approach and have written repeatedly on topic of inflicting unnecessary civilian deaths.  But here is the thing; when you buy a ticket from us you need to get the full ride.  Every time.  No exceptions.

Look at this quote I pulled from an interview with Air Force Lt Gen Gilmary Hostage:

“The first thing we do is fly over head, and the bad guys know air power is in place and oftentimes that’s enough. That ends the fight, they vamoose,”

Say What?  You really think that the ambushers described in yesterdays fight were going to break and run because they heard an A-10?   This is too stupid for words and I am exercising great restraint by not breaking into a signature rant.  But my God has this senior General read one after action report from the Marines in the Helmand?  You know, the reports which repeatedly say that the Taliban will not run from fire that they need to be hit in order to impressed by our fire power?

Counterinsurgency warfare (COIN) focuses on developing a secure environment for civilian activities which means it focuses our efforts on winning the civilian population. COIN is a set of tactics not an operational strategy and COIN tactics are only appropriate for the areas in Afghanistan where the population wants to be helped which is a majority of this country.  There are several places where the people do not want our help and it is stupid to try to approach these areas using COIN focused tactics or objectives.

The areas where people are not interested in helping us build infrastructure are a problem which can only be solved by Afghans.  The instability in Kunar Province is being financed by timber barons.  In Nuristan Province it is gem merchants who finance anti government activity.  The villages located in the areas controlled by these anti government forces are hostile and there is nothing we can offer these people which will bring them onto our side – seven years of experience tell us that – so why do we continue to try doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result?  We are never going to get enough troops here to do a proper “clear, hold, build” program going countrywide and even if we did the State Department and US AID will never supply the manpower they said they would provide to stand up “District Stabilization Teams.”

We cannot reach out to people who have displayed seven years of belligerence, they are Afghans and their problems can only be solved by Afghans.  When they go into hostile villages like Ganjagal it should be a fully supported advance to contact and if they attack us they need to be crushed – all of them.

Well, I appreciate Tim’s perspective that my approach is reasoned.  It could have been better.  But right back at you, Tim.  Your post is great and readers should drop by and spend some time.  Tim, a retired Marine who is currently in theater, is a must read on Afghanistan.

I won’t link up the responses and sideways glances that I have gotten over the original post, but while some agree, many in the COIN (counterinsurgency) world still chuckle and think to themselves, “That clumsy, oafish Herschel … when will he get it?  Doesn’t he understand that killing civilians will extend the campaign and possibly lose it because the very people we need to protect will turn against us?”

As a matter of fact, I have argued for air power only because we are under-resourced in the theater, literally begging for more troops, and specifically Marines.  Look at any of my posts on Now Zad.  With a larger footprint we can avoid the air-induced noncombatant casualties.

But in a tip of the hat to C. S. Lewis – yes, C.S. Lewis – I feel that those COIN proponents who chuckle at my oafish ways think that I don’t understand the deep magic of population-centric counterinsurgency (if you’ve never read the Chronicles of Narnia to your children, you won’t understand this analogy – just soldier on as if you do).

Whether I understand the deep magic or not, I have argued for more troops and against hard line and enforceable ROE which prevents return fire because noncombatants may be killed.  I have opposed this because I believed that it will give the insurgents safe haven.  In fact, officials have now admitted as such.  But there is nuance too.  If we are going to implement such rules it is necessary to engage in the chase upon insurgent withdrawal.  We don’t have the troops to do so, even though the locals have told us that we need to chase and kill every last Taliban.

So we are told that we cannot return fire if noncombatants may be injured.  We cannot engaged in the chase because we don’t have the troops or helicopters.  But we need to engage the chase according to the locals.  What lessons can we learn from this other than we need more troops?

Well, the attempt to proceduralize every jot and tittle of counterinsurgency is a error of enormous proportions.  The best approach to this is to allow the enlisted men, the NCOs and the field grade officers the latitude to make the decisions they need in order to win both hearts and minds and the fight against the enemy.  Teaching and enabling is a function of senior leadership.  Proscribing every detail of a campaign should not be.

Tim Lynch adds to my points by explaining that the population engaged that fateful day didn’t want to be protected from the Taliban.  They are Afghanistan’s problem, but the role the U.S. Marines play is to close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver.  That proceduralizing guidance into formal rules of engagement when every situation is unique is a bad idea may be the deeper magic of counterinsurgency.  Yes.  The deeper magic.


You are currently reading "More on Marine Deaths and Rules of Engagement", entry #3777 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Rules of Engagement and was published September 10th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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