Seeking Riskless War

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 8 months ago

Vampire 06 blogging at Afghanistan Shrugged has an important account of a recent engagement that provides a good barometer for the way business is being conducted in Afghanistan.

The sweat under my IBA and in my ACUs is starting to freeze, I can feel it against my skin.  I’m wishing right now that I’d put on some long underwear before we’d come out here, it’s too late for that now.  Currently, we’re holding about 200 meters short of the target khalat, it’s aprox 2330. The moon has finally risen giving us better illumination than when we started this about 4 hours ago.

In this shallow wadi are a platoon of US infantry, a company of ANA infantry.  We’re watching the khalat from a defilade position waiting for the ANP, Afghan National Police., who are making their way across about 400 meters of plowed fields.  As soon as they get here we’re going to jump off on the last stage of this operation.

In a small cluster are the US platoon sgt, Kandak Commander, one of my captains and me.  As we talk in hushed whispers about how we’re going to move up this khalat and search it, we each look like something out of a scifi movie.  All of the US personnel have night vision monocoles on giving one eye the green hue of night vision and the other peering into the Afghan darkness.  My ANA counterpart has no night vision, thus we have to describe things to him through the terp and then try to show him by having him look through our night vision device (NVD).

The ANP come stumbling across the field and reach our position.  We brief them on what we’re going to do, make sure they understand and get ready to move.

“Everyone ready”? I ask

“Roger” replies the platoon sgt

“Seis” say the afghans, meaning yes.

“Alright lets move”, and we begin to push forward on line toward the target building

Four hours earlier this mission started because the TOC observed four suspected ACM about 700 meters north of our FOB through a thermal site.  The ACM were located behind a wall near some woodpiles just outside the bizzare area.  We’ve taken serveral rockets from this location in the last three days.  We gathered in the TOC and discussed our course of action.  We think we’re about to get the guys that have shooting at us.

Our joint decision is that the ETTs will move to the bizzare mounted in vehicles and then dismount, clearing through these woodpiles; catching or killing these guys.  The US forces will move to a support by fire position to our east and cover our dismounted movement.  The end of the wall the ACM are hinding behind is the ANA limit of advance, beyond the end of that wall is an open field extending for several hundred meters.  So, if the ANA and ETTs don’t get the bad guys, they’ll be forced to move out into the open field for the US forces to get them.

The ANA have no night vision capabilty, so a key piece of this plan is that the US will fire illumination rounds via 60 milimeter mortars once we dismount allowing the ANA to see as we move through the woodpiles.  All of the ETTs have night vision.

Sounds great, we’re going whack these guys that have been trying to kill us for three days.  Yeah Team!!

We roll out and as we move an F-15 comes on station, with rover capability.  Our plans demise has now arrived.  Rover is a feed that allows TOCs on the ground to see what’s the plane is observing via digital link.  One of the TOCs getting this feed is the battalion headquarters for the US forces. This TOC is located about 100 miles from us.

The ANA reach the dismount point and we all get out, prepping to move through the wood piles.  These piles could hide anythig, giant stacks with limbs and logs sticking out everywhere, trying to see a person in this is going to difficult at best.  Once we’re all ready I call for the illumination rounds.

DENIED!  Because the battalion commander 100 miles away thinks it’s to dangerous.  His concern is that the canister that the illum round is in will land on a khalat in the area, this canister weighs about 8 pounds.  Disregard the fact that without this illum the ANA can’t see anything.  8 pounds hitting a house or us not being able to see?  I’m coming down on the side of us being able to see the enemy.

I call for the illum round again.  DENIED!  What the…?  This guy is 100 miles away and making decisions that should be made by us on the ground, we’re the ones closing with the enemy.  I guess empowering subordinates and letting ground commanders make the call isn’t taught anymore.

We now have a serious problem.  The ANA can’t see but the ETTs can, guess we’ll now have to move in front of the ANA clearing through the piles of wood.  So that’s what we do.  The ETTs get in front and start moving forward.  There are about 50 of us in this position and only four of us can see anything.

Later review of a videotape from the thermal site will show that as we move through; we come within about 100 meters of the enemy before they pick up and run into the open field.  With the illum we would have had these guys dead to rights and either captured or killed them.   We can’t see that far without illumination, but we didn’t hit a house with an 8 pound canister.  Justice is served!  I feel better about myself already.  100 miles must give some other perspective I’m missing.  I can barely see 50 feet.

We reach the limit of our advance.  The F-15 is back on station and says he’s seen the ACM run to a house which he’s illuminating with an IR laser.  I can see the laser coming out of the sky, but I can’t see any backscatter off the traget meaning it’s pretty damn far away from where I’m holding.  These bad guys must be on roids because they ran about 5 kilometers in roughly 10 minutes.  Afghanistan has a bright olympic future with these guys.

After holding here for another 10 minutes we decide to remount the vehicles and move to the target house the aircraft  spotted.  We still have no illumination and the ANA are stumbling around in the dark trying to get back to their vehicles.  Their pissed, I’m pissed but not as pissed as I’ll be when I see the video and how close we were originally.  I still haven’t told the ANA how close we were.

Finally after much cussing in Dari and English we get back to the vehicles and move out to the target.  As we drive, I think to myself, there is no way they ran this far, no way.

Now we’re moving toward the target house.  My clothes are freezing to me and the ANA can see a little bit more due to the moonlight.  We get a radio call to hold short again.

The 100 mile commander has called on the radio trying to telling us how the ANA/ANP are supposed to search the house and what they can and cannot do.  Who the hell is this guy?  He’s telling the armed forces and police of a sovereign nation what they can do in their own country.  He’s not even here on the ground and this is now an Afghan operation.  He must have missed the part about Afghanistan being it’s own country.

We give him the infamous, “Yeah Roger” and start moving again.  I’m amazed and galled by this guys audacity.  He’s a battalion commander, so what, I’m standing in a field in the cold and dark with an Afghan Battalion Commander.  He’s running the show and oh by the way we don’t even think this is the right house.  But 100 mile is telling us it is.  Good God!

We knock on the door and after some time an Afghan farmer answers the door, he’s been asleep.  The ANA/ANP search despite the direction of 100 mile and we don’t find jack.  No duh, it’s three miles away from where this all started.  Luckily at this point we don’t know how close we were to getting these dudes.

The ANA, ANP, US and ETTs trudge back across the field to our vehicles.  Defeated not by the ACM but our own commanders.

Tim Lynch of Free Range International makes the following observation.

You cannot successfully deploy little detachments of infantry in a large geographical space and expect them to fight and behave within the frame work of their commanders intent unless they know their commander trusts them to do the job.  The commander can tell them he trusts them all he wants but actions speak louder than words.  If he insists on micro managing units when they are in contact the message he is sending is “I do not trust you and do not think you will make the right calls in combat.”  The first step towards being able to fight a proper counterinsurgency is to deploy units in the field whom you trust and do not micromanage.  There is no other way and I do not care how many Colonels in Bagram tell you differently using all sorts of anecdotal stories to illustrate why they are compelled to control fights from on high. In the counterinsurgency fight  junior leaders have got to be left alone to do what junior leaders are supposed to do – fight when they have to and figure out how help the local population when they are not fighting.

Analysis & Commentary

I hope that Vampire 06 keeps on blogging, and I know that Tim Lynch will.  Along with Michael Yon, they are must-reads for the person who wishes to understand what’s going on in Afghanistan.  While not ostensibly oriented towards ROE, the report by Vampire 06 and Tim’s comments fairly well summarizes the problems that I have had with the rules of engagement – both standing and local – ever since I have been covering and commenting on this issue.

First, every actuarial or practitioner of probabilistic risk analysis knows what risk is.  Quite simply, it is the product of probability and consequences:

Risk = P X C

When evaluated this way, each evolution or sequence may then be evaluated against another to assess relative risk between options, or designs, or situations, or circumstances.  There is of course a risk associated with wanton destruction in a counterinsurgency campaign, that being that the rate of creation of insurgents is greater than the rate of destruction of insurgents.  Yet upon General McChrystal’s implementation of his recent tactical directive which essentially changed the ROE for Afghanistan, some old warriors claimed that the net result of such a change would probably be more, not fewer, civilian casualties.

The tension is in tactical versus strategic concerns, and it’s foolish to believe that this is an easy balancing act, or that only one choice involves risk.  McChrystal’s new tactical directive which prohibits firing upon buildings or other locations (especially with the use of air power) if it is possible that noncombatants could be harmed is at least prima facie in the strategic interests of the campaign.  Yet this same directive has caused Marines in Helmand to refuse to engage certain buildings with direct fires, the end result being that Taliban fighters later escaped.  These same Taliban fighters will likely cause various distress to the local population, and may be involved in the development or emplacement of roadside bombs which will blow the legs off of Marines.  Assessment of risk only in terms of immediate danger to the population ignores the very real risk from the affect of prolonged operations with Taliban fighters who know that they can hop into any available domicile for protection against U.S. fires.

Second, the proceduralization of rules and tactical directives tends to press decision-making upwards in the organization.  It invariably involves lawyers who have deployed with their assigned units, or at least staff level officers who have been trained by the lawyers.  It’s an attempt to convert war into a clinical, riskless enterprise, with success depending more on risk-free deployments for staff level officers than on-the-ground results.

One thing that separates Western Armies (and in particular the U.S.) from the balance of the world is not only the strong officer corps, but more specifically the strong non-commissioned officer corps.  Decision making should be pushed downward in the organization rather than upward.  The people best suited to balance the tactical versus the strategic concerns are those who are in the field doing the hard work of counterinsurgency.  The preferred model is training, education, assistance and especially trust, rather than regulations, rules, lawyers and staff officer decisions 100 miles away.

Vampire 06 is fully capable of performing the risk calculations without help from superiors.  He, like all field grade officers, does this intuitively and on the fly.  The goal is balanced risk, but we must reject the notion that we can eliminate all consequences in war.  There is no such thing as riskless war.


Follow and Kill Every Single Taliban

More on ROE in Afghanistan: Refusing the Chase

Concluding Thoughts on Afghanistan ROE Modifications

Afghanistan Rules of Engagement Redux

Update on ROE Changes for Afghanistan

Changes to Rules of Engagement for Afghanistan

Recon by Fire

Rules of Engagement Category

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  1. On August 7, 2009 at 7:09 am, gian p gentile said:


    Great post and as always excellent analysis on your part. I always pay very close attention to what you have to say about things.

    A very interesting situation indeed. I would add that it does premise itself on the time old “bastards up at platoon” trope. Except this time the bastards are battalion. For me when I was a Cavalry Squadron Commander in West Baghdad in 2006 my natural “bastards” were usually those at Division, but sometimes even right above me at Brigade. Too, I bet you that if you had a private in that platoon who blogged one could imagine him talking about the actual bastard at platoon, Vampire 06. The point here is that this is a time honored literary trope of war that should be considered even in this blog entry. After all, even with blogs, there is a literary and constructive element to them. They do not reveal by nature the ground truth to things, only a slice of it from perspective and angle.

    Also operating here is the time old tension between levels of command with control with centralization. We like to think that we are all Urnst Ungers and have figured out tactical initiative unbound by those bastards at higher levels. All war contains this tension and the notion that in Coin the tension as a matter of principle should go away and leave the noble platoon leader on his own to do the Lord’s work is absurd. But that is an implied point in this blog post.

    Perhaps the battalion commander was right to deny the mortar mission; if nothing else let’s give the guy the benefit of doubt and that even though he is 100 miles away he might have a bigger and better view of things that the LT doesn’t have. Perhaps another LT in a similar situation earlier that evening called for and got mortar illum and in the process burnt a village down. If that was, as a hypothetical part of the context, might then the battalion commander had been justified. So much for turning our new millennium centurions out on the coin ramparts into Urnst Jungers. Control is a necessary part of war.


  2. On August 7, 2009 at 9:00 am, Herschel Smith said:

    I appreciate the thoughts Gian.

    Yes, this narrative is now part of history, and as historical narrative, it is based on the premises and perspectives of the individual. This is good historiography. And the narrative isn’t complete, for we would need all other narratives for this (including the pilot, the Colonel, etc.). Even then, we may never have the complete picture.

    But this is only an illumination round for the purposes of seeing known insurgents who will later escape, and as I said in the post, perhaps blowing the legs off of Soldiers and Marines in the coming days, or harming the very civilians we are trying to protect in this narrative. No one is proposing to drop a daisy cutter on a village.

    Perhaps an illumination round had indeed burned houses down somewhere else in Afghanistan that night. Who knows? Do we then revise the tactical directive(s) or ROE to prevent the use of illumination rounds? Do we refuse all such requests in the future because there is a risk?

    Of course war should be controlled. But there is no riskless war as you know first hand (and I only know in theory).

    Either way, I appreciate the visit and comment. Thus is the legitimacy of TCJ confirmed, even if my premise is used to make a different point. It’s an interesting discussion, and even more personal to Vampire 06.

  3. On August 7, 2009 at 3:59 pm, MarinePaPa said:

    Does anyone see a repeat of Israel/Hezbollah in 2006? If our troops have to operate under McChrystal’s new ROE, as interpreted by some officer 100 miles away, then we might as well pack up and come home.

    I hope to hell the Marines aren’t doing the same “afraid to hurt anybody” routine.

    Seriously, there is NO WAY that you can win a war fighting with both hands tied behind your back. So lets just get out and let the NGOs “rebuild Afghanistan”.


  4. On August 12, 2009 at 9:39 pm, TSAlfabet said:

    I’m with MarinePaPa.

    Thanks to the Captain’s tireless efforts to illuminate the clusterfunking of this campaign, it is getting ever more clear that the Admin has no clear idea of what victory will look like (and, in fact, refuses to even use the word “victory”) and is hoping to run out the clock with half-measures until a proper “exit strategy” is found.

    Bring them home now, even though it will de-stabilize A-stan and P-stan. But keep the B-2 bombers fueled and ready for retaliation after the next 9-11.

  5. On August 19, 2009 at 5:16 am, amarriott said:

    Good report from the UK, Channel 4 on Panthers Claw. Illustrates the difficulty in engageing enemy and shows stress between UK and ANA. One ANA soldier falls asleep on watch and gets a ‘bollocking’ as we brits would say. Seems a thankless demoralising operation.

    Just the video:

    or see Channel 4’s site:

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You are currently reading "Seeking Riskless War", entry #3540 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Featured,Rules of Engagement and was published August 7th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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