5 years, 6 months ago
Two and a half years ago, I wrote God in the Battle Space. I cited the example of Lt. Col. Jason Bohm as exemplary of the kind of interaction with the population that engenders trust. There is another presence in the battle space – that of lawyers. To be sure, no one intends for there to be any deleterious affects from the presence of law school graduates in the battle space. But equally as sure, their presence has complicated things.
MARJAH, Afghanistan—As Capt. Anthony Zinni monitored a live video feed from a Predator drone circling overhead, he spotted four men planting a booby trap in the middle of the road here.
For Capt. Zinni, one of the officers responsible for approving airstrikes in the nine-day-old battle for Marjah, it seemed like an easy call: The men were digging a hole alongside a road where a Marine supply convoy was scheduled to pass within hours. But just as he was about to give the order to strike, Capt. Zinni spotted even-smaller white figures on the video running along the path south of the canal.
Children. Maybe 50 feet from the men planting the booby trap. “It’s not a good shot,” Capt. Zinni said, ordering the Predator drone to delay the strike. “It’s not a good shot.”
The 45 minutes that followed help illustrate why it is taking coalition forces so long to secure this hotly contested part of Afghanistan …
When Capt. Zinni spotted the four men planting the booby trap on the afternoon of Feb. 17, the first thing he did was call his lawyer.
“Judge!” he yelled.
Capt. Matthew Andrew, judge advocate for 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, advises the battalion about when it is legal to order the airstrikes. He examined the figures on the video feed closely. “I think you got it,” Capt. Andrew said, giving the OK for the strike.
Capt. Zinni, 35 years old, grew up among Marines—his father is retired Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, former commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East—and always seemed destined for the Corps.
The Marines watch almost constant video feeds from unmanned aircraft, including Predators armed with Hellfire missiles and piloted remotely by crews at an Air Force base near Las Vegas. The suspected insurgents were digging on a road that ran along the north bank of a wide canal, part of an elaborate irrigation system built with U.S. aid money in the 1950s.
Knowing that the Marine convoy was due to pass over the spot in a couple of hours added pressure to the decision about whether to strike.
Once Capt. Zinni spotted the children and called off the strike, Capt. Andrew loitered behind the Marines at the monitors, pondering the situation. “We have to separate the insurgents from the people,” he said. “If we just bomb the hell out of everything, we’ll have a hard time doing that.” But the Marjah battlefield was constantly changing, with insurgents and civilians often in close proximity.
“If we can ensure there aren’t any kids around, you have a good shot,” he told Capt. Zinni.
On a cot nearby, Lance Cpl. José Guzman-Berrios, a 19-year-old from Carolina, Puerto Rico, was monitoring chat messages pouring in from the Predator mission commander in Nevada. “Children are out of view 30 meters down the road walking west,” Lance Cpl. Guzman-Berrios read aloud.
Even though the children were out of view, the battalion operations officer, Maj. John Harris, worried they could be hit by the airstrike, erasing whatever goodwill the Marines were accumulating by ousting the Taliban. “The last thing I want to do is kill kids,” he said. “Once it’s confirmed there are no friendlies, it’s approved.”
The children, however, soon walked back into view on the screens, pacing along the path south of the canal.
Capt. Andrew suggested that a show-of-force—a loud, low pass by a helicopter or jet—might scare the men into bolting for the compound, or, at least, interrupt their work. “Or they might go into a field, and we may be able to kill them,” Maj. Harris added.
Capt. Zinni had seen this scenario before in Marjah. Insurgents using women and children for cover as they moved weapons or crossed open spaces into fighting positions in buildings. In this case, the captain was certain that the children were acting—either by their own volition or under coercion—as shields for the men planting the bomb.
The way the Taliban see it, he thought, they’d win either way: The Americans might hold their fire and allow them to plant a bomb unmolested. Or the Americans might kill a few civilians, a propaganda victory for an insurgent force increasingly adept at using the media to spread its message.
“We’re not going to be able to hit this,” Capt. Zinni concluded. He ordered the Predator pilot to keep an eye on the men. Maybe they’d lead the Marines back to their commander’s position. Or maybe they’d make a mistake and leave through an area clear of civilians.
Then came a chat message from the Predator mission commander in Las Vegas: “There are no more civilians in the area. Three people in the road at this time.”
“No children?” Maj. Harris said. “Strike ‘em.”
Capt. Alex Ramthun, a 31-year-old Harrier jump-jet pilot in charge of talking to the Predator pilot, passed him the order: “Strike approved, strike approved, strike approved.”
But the children returned. “Two children on the opposite side of the canal, approximately 15 meters,” came the message from Las Vegas.
The pilot aborted the attack run and continued to circle.
“It’s not worth the risk,” agreed Capt. Zinni. “They’re doing this on purpose. Wait for them to go out in a field.”
Capt. Ramthun relayed Capt. Zinni’s decision to the Predator pilot. “Shot is no longer authorized,” he said.
That evening, the scheduled Marine supply convoy rambled down the dirt road. Warned of the booby trap, the vehicles stopped short of the spot where the men were seen digging. The Marines removed a buried triggering device, set to detonate the explosives when a vehicle passed. As is often the case, the Taliban had been working in shifts, with one team responsible for digging the hole and planting the trigger, and another team detailed to bury and connect the homemade explosives.
On Friday, the Marines spotted three men digging on the same road. This time there were no civilians around.
A Marine attack helicopter blasted them with cannon fire.
Let’s be specific. No one wants to see children die. It might have been the case that had Captain Zinni been free to call in air strikes without the approval of the JAG and staff officers, the call would have been timely enough to have been pulled off without noncombatant casualties.
But what we learn in this example has little to do with the the rules of engagement or the protection of the population. This is unchanged. What we learn is that there is an every increasing degree of control over calls made in the battle space.
I have a friend who has a theory, and I believe this theory to be substantially correct. The value, worth or viability of a document, call, decision or judgment is inversely proportional to the number of signatures on that document, or people agreeing to the action.
We train lower ranking field grade officers to make these decisions, we give them the rules, and we send them into the battle space on our behalf. They need God at their side to help with moral decision-making. Lawyers are no replacement for God, and our officers most certainly do not need lawyers second guessing or approving their decisions.