Dangerous Precedents in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 12 months ago

From Stars and Stripes:

SHAH JOY DISTRICT, Afghanistan — An Afghan army commander whom American troops had dubbed “Snoop” was angry, accusing a U.S. dog handler of allowing his Labrador retriever to sniff a copy of the Quran while searching a cluster of villages that U.S. forces suspect is a Taliban stronghold.

The commander — named for his resemblance to the rapper Snoop Dog — warned 2nd Lt. Blake Wyant of Company C, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment that he and his men were ready to quit the village and never work with American forces again.

Wyant, 24, of Sioux City, Iowa, listened patiently until Snoop threatened to kill the dog if the incident happened a second time. Muslims consider dogs to be unclean.

Speaking through an interpreter, Wyant looked evenly at the Afghan commander.

“You tell him that’s not going to happen,” he said. “You tell him that shooting that dog would be just like shooting an American soldier.”

The incident and several others during the three-day mission last week in a suspected Taliban stronghold underscored the fundamental challenges that U.S. troops face in Afghanistan. As the war drags into its ninth year, and as President Barack Obama contemplates sending thousands more troops, Americans are fighting alongside Afghan government forces more closely than ever. But it’s an uneasy alliance.

Wyant and Snoop struck a compromise. The handler and his dog would not search any more houses without an Afghan interpreter present. Later, after Snoop and his men had moved on, the interpreter told Wyant that they had actually threatened to kill not only the dog, but all of the U.S. soldiers in the village as well.

“Well, I know that isn’t going to happen,” Wyant said. “We’re much better shots than they are.”

U.S. and other international troops are now also fighting under strict new counterinsurgency guidelines laid down in September by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The rules emphasize protecting Afghan civilians over destroying the Taliban. The goal is to convince Afghans, worn down by 30 years of warfare, that the Afghan government and its security forces offer them a better life than the insurgents.

Under the new policy, Afghan soldiers and police have been thrust to the forefront, with U.S. and other international troops playing more of a supporting role. U.S. soldiers say the policy has led to several changes in how they conduct operations, including a rule that prohibits them from cutting locks on doors while searching for weapons and explosives. That task is to be handled by Afghans.

But during their mission here, U.S. soldiers complained frequently that when Afghan troops came across a locked door, they left it alone if they couldn’t find anyone to let them inside — a practice that many soldiers said works in the Taliban’s favor.

“The ANA (Afghan National Army) is supposed to do that, but they don’t want to,” said Wyant. “You could probably put a lot of stuff in a room and lock it up, and we wouldn’t be able to get to it.”

Other soldiers said new rules have severely limited how they can react to enemy threats. Several soldiers recounted how, on Aug. 20, as Afghans cast their votes for president, they received mortar fire from a Taliban position in a village. The fighters were out of range of rifle fire, but the troops couldn’t fire back with heavy weapons because the Taliban position was in a populated area.

“You could see the house where they were shooting from,” said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Spaulding, 39, of Spring Hill, Fla. “They’d shoot, and then they’d walk around the side of the house to see where the rounds were impacting.”

“The enemy is smart,” he said. “They fire at us from a building inside a village, and they know we can’t fire back at them.”

Other soldiers said the restrictions were placing U.S. forces at too much risk.

“The rules of engagement here are so strict there is nothing we can do,” said Staff Sgt. Gary Grose, 31, of Alexandria, La. “We kind of shadow the ANA and drive around and get blown up.”

“It’s like tying a boxer’s hands and then throwing him into the ring and telling him he can’t use his feet to kick,” Grose said.

Analysis & Commentary

There were problems not dissimilar to these in Iraq.

… the Iraqi brigade, which is predominantly Shiite, was assigned a new area and instructed to stay away from Nasr Wa Salam, Colonel Pinkerton said. But he said he believed that the Iraqi soldiers remain intent on preventing Sunni Arabs, a majority here, from controlling the area. He cites a pattern of aggression by Iraqi troops toward Abu Azzam’s men and other Sunnis, who he believes are often detained for no reason.

Recently, and without warning, Colonel Pinkerton said, 80 Iraqi soldiers in armored vehicles charged out of their sector toward Nasr Wa Salam but were blocked by an American platoon. The Iraqis refused to say where they were going and threatened to drive right through the American soldiers, whom they greatly outnumbered.

Eventually, with Apache helicopter gunships circling overhead and American gunners aiming their weapons at them, the Iraqi soldiers retreated. “It hasn’t come to firing bullets yet,” Colonel Pinkerton said … Pinkerton’s experiences here, he said, have inverted the usual American instincts born of years of hard fighting against Sunni insurgents.

“I could stand among 1,800 Sunnis in Abu Ghraib,” he said, “and feel more comfortable than standing in a formation of Iraqi soldiers.”

But Iraq was primarily pacified before the Status of Forces Agreement was inked.  The SOFA now places U.S. Soldiers under virtual house arrest, and right now there are a lot of frustrated U.S. troops wasting a lot of time in Iraq.  The SOFA was an extremely bad idea that makes U.S. presence largely irrelevant in Iraq.

Hamid Karzai has pressed for a SOFA for U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan, and thus far this request has been rebuffed.  But there is a dangerous precedent being set in the account above in spite of the lack of formal agreements.  The empowerment and growth of the Afghan National Army, due entirely to U.S. pressure, money and training, can have deleterious consequences on the campaign.  If the U.S. is not present and operating under the notion of sovereign power (due to the presence of enemies of state), then the campaign needs to come to a close.

Unless we wish to see the ebb of our influence in Afghanistan, no quarter can be given to rogue ANA units such as this one, no matter how much the administration wishes to withdraw from Afghanistan.  This ANA unit ought to have been immediately disarmed and disbanded upon learning that they had threatened even a dog belonging to the U.S., much less the lives of Soldiers.  Culture notwithstanding, there is absolutely no excuse for threats, and this ANA unit should have become an example to other units.

As for Company C, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, they should have been given the latitude to make such decisions, and if not latitude that was given, then it should have been taken.  No commanding officer is worth his pay and respect who risks the lives of his men around troops who won’t fight alongside them, much less troops who will fight against them.  There is simply no excuse for this ANA unit or the U.S. troops suffering their bluster and threats.

Finally, I strongly suspect that this ANA unit is full of cowards who would not only treacherously undercut the U.S. forces, but run when confronted by Taliban fighters.  If they won’t search homes for ordnance, then they won’t face down fighters shooting at them.  They are full of treachery and bluster, but essentially worthless to either the campaign or the future of Afghanistan.  Such are the men we are arming in Afghanistan to take our place.

  • BruceR

    Herschel, this wasn’t a rogue unit. All Afghan units, to a man, refuse to work with dogs, and refuse to break open doors. When I was there a year ago, they been instructed by their high command to not participate in compound searches at all, in fact. Most ANA follow their own rules on this topic assiduously: they are proud of their positive rep with the people and generally do nothing that would jeopardize it. ISAF policy has been to support the ANA in those choices. There is no new “ROE” here; these are standard years-old ISAF ROE, being applied for the first time by new U.S. arrivals. Welcome to Afghanistan.

    ISAF retained no authority to disband units or otherwise sanction ANA behaviour in any way. There certainly were no ramifications or consequences for the Afghan soldiers for ignoring or disobeying or displeasing us in this case. In short, there is no “sovereign power” when it comes to relations with the local security forces in Afghanistan, and never was. Sorry if any of this comes as a surprise, but really, trust me, this is the norm, and unlikely to change any time soon.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    BruceR, I think you might be missing the point. Of course there is no surprise here for regular readers who have learned not to trust the ANA and ANP. I don’t really care with whom they refuse to work, dogs included. But I do care much more about the atmospherics that would allow an ANA unit to threaten a U.S. unit. Unacceptable – totally.

    As for soveriegn power, I think you hit the nail on the head. Of course we retain sovereignty – we are there. We invaded, just as we did in Iraq. If we do not wish to exercise that sovereignty, then it’s time to leave. Otherwise we are headed towards something like a SOFA which with then officially and formally render us powerless.

    The point that I am making is that we have the sovereignty we think we do, no more and no less.

  • bearanddragon

    Having been a combat advisor, I can see straight up that Wyant is just an inexperienced platoon commander – someone more likely to get his guys killed trying to play the tough guy. Telling an Afghan a dog is the equivalent of a soldier. Really? Come on. Yes, I don’t know all the facts, but from what I can gleam, Wyant may have made the tactically sound move, but the mentally and morally wrong one.

    You can’t build up the credibility of the ANA if you openly mock their ways of doing things. Patience is key, relationships the foundation. Obviously this unit needs to work with their ANA counterpart more. Calling the local commander “Snoop” may be cute in the privacy of their hooch, but the fact that they are openly at odds doing a cordon and search points to a serious issue. Yes, the ANA are going to be corrupt, yes, they are going to do shady deals. But when I first started reading the article, I was almost appalled – a dog sniffing a Koran is unbelievable and has the potential in turning into a much larger incident. Wyant may be extremely protective of his dog, but then elevating it to the status of a human to Afghans is a shocking insult.

    “Well, I know that isn’t going to happen,” Wyant said. “We’re much better shots than they are.” Really, genius? Congratulations, you may just yet get to test that theory. What a wasted deployment.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Normally I require my military readers to prove their status to me with an e-mail from *.mil network domain.

    I’m sure you were a fine advisor, but we see things very differently. I don’t really care whether a dog sniffed the Koran (Qu’ran). I also don’t really care whether the CO made a comparison between his Soldiers and dogs. I don’t really care what the ANA CO thinks about anything. I also don’t think he mocked anything. I also can’t comment on wasted deployments, since I don’t know anything else about this one. I won’t disparage men under threat.

    I can – and did – comment on the atmospherics that would lead to threats from the ANA towards U.S. troops. This ANA unit is worthless. Worthless. They serve no function and may as well be disbanded. I have closed ears when it comes to things like whether the ANA want to search homes for Taliban. I don’t really care what they want to do. They are worthless.

    I would add that I see things in a very Marine fashion, and can go by what I know of the campaign for Anbar. The Marines made no attempt whatsoever to be liked. Had someone leveled a threat towards a Marine 2004 – 2007 in Anbar, he would have gotten the butt of a gun upside the head.

    This CO has lost the respect of the ANA if in fact he ever had it. That’s what concerns me. The post doesn’t pretend to know more than the CO about Soldiering. The post is a lament at U.S. troops allowing atmospherics where a worthless ANA unit would threaten them.

    Maybe that’s more clear now.

    ps: When the Marines went into Helmand in Operation Khanhar, they took their own ANP with them. When they found threatening or worthless ANP units, they disbanded them and installed their own. Case closed.

  • bearanddragon

    Sorry for busting on the scene like that – yours is one of a dozen or so blogs that I occasionally check up for some insightful commentary and news. I’ll hold on the formal intro from now – suffice to say I’m a Marine 0302 not yet interested in making his presence known in the blogosphere. I read the article at the Stars and Stripes and was appalled at the behavior of Lt Wyant, largely because it reminded me of myself as a young Lt – eager to get out, eager to fight more than to win, and with a let’s-just-flatten everything attitude. Years later, and much wiser, I can see that we need to scratch this attitude among our jr officers quickly.

    The real root of the issue is the relationship this American unit has with their ANA counterpart. Of course the ANA aren’t going to give two craps about this Army unit and the onus is with our side to fix that. The US unit almost certainly live comfortably in a combat outpost somewhere, cooled by air conditioners, fed by good American food, and with access to showers, the internet, and DVD’s. Every week or so they will almost certainly make it back to a comfortable FOB somewhere, where they can catch a movie in a theater, play hours of PS3, and gorge in baskin robbins ice cream. This unit has state of the art kevlars and body armor, and weapons with thousands of dollars of optics on them. The ANA probably don’t, armed with a hand-me-down AK variant (a junked M16 if they’re lucky), living on scraps, and not knowing whether one year from now they’ll have a home to return to, or even a government that can function. They will view the disparity with distrust, anger, and probably humility. Our logistics systems are superb and the envy of world militaries. Theirs is non-existent.

    Many units often bring their own ANP/ANA with them – I’ve met commanders who proudly boast they are merely using these guys to put a local “face” on the project. Once again – shortsighted. Afghans may be largely illiterate and possibly ignorant of the world in general, but a farce is easy to spot. You disparage a unit, and they simply don’t care. You insult them, and you’ll end up fighting them at some point. This may be asking way too much of teenage soldiers, but until the ANA sees us as human, willing to share their living conditions, they will not respect us. When I was an advisor, we ate with our counterparts, joked with them, swapped stories about our families, and followed, yes, followed them into harms way. And still, we didn’t go far enough – we still enjoyed the comforts of living large even though we lived with them.

    First off, no dog should enter an Afghan’s home – let alone sniff a Qu’ran. Do I really care if they do personally? No. But can you imagine this headline plastered across all the major Arab newspapers the following day? “American Invaders Use Dogs to Terrify Local Afghans; Reports of Defiling Qu’ran with Dogs Widespread”. Exaggerated? Sure. Scary – definitely. Because now every teenage boy in the Muslim world will be ready to head to Afghanistan.

  • anan

    Herschel Smith, I registered to comment on this article. Thanks for your service.

    I couldn’t disagree with you more on many parts of your article and the comments above. In fact, parts of it might be similar to a spoof written by a pro Taliban hard academic leftist.

    I don’t think you understand how offensive dogs are to Afghans or that part of the world in general. A dog sniffing a Koran! This is a very big deal.

    How do you know that “this ANA unit is worthless”? Do you know its unit designation or its history? Maybe you do; but if you don’t . . . this data point doesn’t tell you much about it, other than they got emotional about a dog sniffing a Koran, and that they didn’t want to break locks in that village (which is because of their commanding generals, not them.)

    I also question your assertions on Al Anbar. How did the Marines treat 1st and 7th Iraqi Army Divisions and the Sawa in 2006 and 2007? I would argue that the Marines treated the Iraqi Army with more respect than the US army did, and held them to a higher standard in return. It wasn’t by accident that 1st and 7th Iraqi Army Divisions become the two best quality divisions in the Iraqi Army in 2007.

    Everyone should be treated with respect, even the enemy. Treating people with respect doesn’t mean you need to accept any crap from them. It doesn’t mean that you can’t calmly tell them that their actions are not acceptable, or what you will do based on their actions. It doesn’t even mean that you can’t kill them. But whatever we do needs to be done with respect.

    The most important ISAF mission in Afghanistan is to increase the capacity of the ANSF to defeat the Taliban. This requires treating the ANSF with respect, and being grateful to them for taking 4 times the casualties of ISAF.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    anan,

    I take your comment as kind but still wrong-headed. Frankly, you have no idea whatsoever what you’re talking about.

    For instance, the 2/6 Marines in Fallujah in 2007 worked and lived closely with the IPs (who were indigenous, some former insurgents), and trusted them implicitly. As for the ISF, the Marines didn’t trust them one iota based on their experiences. When sleeping, they wouldn’t retire for the night without (a) an armed Marine on guard watching over the ISF, and (b) concertina wire in between them and the ISF. Fallujah was better off when the ISF left.

    This comports with other experiences:

    http://www.captainsjournal.com/2007/12/02/standing-up-the-iraqi-army/

    … the Iraqi brigade, which is predominantly Shiite, was assigned a new area and instructed to stay away from Nasr Wa Salam, Colonel Pinkerton said. But he said he believed that the Iraqi soldiers remain intent on preventing Sunni Arabs, a majority here, from controlling the area. He cites a pattern of aggression by Iraqi troops toward Abu Azzam’s men and other Sunnis, who he believes are often detained for no reason.

    Recently, and without warning, Colonel Pinkerton said, 80 Iraqi soldiers in armored vehicles charged out of their sector toward Nasr Wa Salam but were blocked by an American platoon. The Iraqis refused to say where they were going and threatened to drive right through the American soldiers, whom they greatly outnumbered.

    Eventually, with Apache helicopter gunships circling overhead and American gunners aiming their weapons at them, the Iraqi soldiers retreated. “It hasn’t come to firing bullets yet,” Colonel Pinkerton said … Pinkerton’s experiences here, he said, have inverted the usual American instincts born of years of hard fighting against Sunni insurgents.

    “I could stand among 1,800 Sunnis in Abu Ghraib,” he said, “and feel more comfortable than standing in a formation of Iraqi soldiers.”

    There are far too many instances of mistrust of the ISF – and for very good reason – that I cannot enumerate them all here. If pressed I could find dozens of such articles for you.

    As for the ANA unit, they are worthless because they cannot be trusted to care enough to search the homes of insurgents and are treacherous enough to threaten U.S. troops. Not much else needs to be said about this.

  • Blake Wyant

    First, I would like to say that I stumbled across this post because my name came up when I was searching for a different article. I will admit that at the time this incident happened I was a young and inexperienced officer. That being said, I think that making comments on the leadership of C Co, 4-23 IN based one a single article that was written by a reporter who was only with the company for three days is a little ridiculous. This was an extremely isolated incident and the exact events are not accurately portrayed in the article.
    Secondly, I would like bearanddragon to know that we were not living on a big FOB and did not have any of the amenities he assumed we had. We were living worse off than the ANA. I respect the marines and we worked extensively with them during the Marjah operation in Helmand, Afghanistan. Also, I guarantee that I could pick apart numerous decisions that you have made throughout your military career but out of a professional respect I would never do that.


You are currently reading "Dangerous Precedents in Afghanistan", entry #4164 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghan National Army,Afghanistan,Afghanistan SOFA and was published November 4th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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