Among the latest headlines, there is talk about the bold, extreme and drastic changes in how U.S. and Allied Forces in Afghanistan are recruiting, vetting and training Afghan Police in light of a rash of ‘green-on-blue’ attacks. The truth is the changes, where they are actually happening are not a matter of political and military leaders in Washington taking steps to protect our soldiers; they are simply beginning to listen to the men on the ground. Here’s to hoping this is not a one-off.
Back home in Washington, policy and rules of engagement are decided by and large by those who have never served on the front lines, and worse, often by those who have never worn a uniform. These politicians are dictating policy according to notions of what will play well in the media, both here and abroad. The first consideration is not getting the job done nor even the best practices that will protect our men and women on the front lines. Of course they say the safety of our people and her allies is of paramount importance but they do not and have not practiced what they preach. Lest there be any misunderstanding, I’m not laying the blame for this solely at the feet of this administration; these policies have been in place, at least as lip service, since day one. The full blame does not even lie with the politicians, though they do carry the lion’s share. The talking, empty heads in the media more
concerned with ratings than with truth have been as culpable as the politicians.
Eleven years ago, the unthinkable happened. We were attacked. Groups and even sovereign nations over the years have declared war on us countless times and for countless reason, but this group brought the fight to our shores. Thousands of innocent civilians who were just going about their day were killed in a cowardly attack, against the normal rules of warfare
respected by modern nations the world over. Civilian, medical, religious and refugee populations are never to be targeted, and with this understanding war has been civilized as much as something so antithetical to civilization can be. This enemy, with their singular attack announced to the world that they do not recognize nor will they abide by these internationally agreed upon rules of engagement.
Yet, we here in the US fancy ourselves as a civilized people; our society will not support wanton and intentional destruction and killing of civilians. This is something our enemy knows all too well and takes full advantage of at every opportunity. The fact that our media, always looking for an angle, a spin, a different take on the news of the current cycle plays into their hands, is something else our enemy knows as well.
As a result, politicians in Washington try to sell the American people a vision of ourselves that all of us want to believe; a vision that states we are an enlightened, modern society that respects human rights and the rights of an individual, whether they are living in Akron, Ohio or Sanjaray, Afghanistan. We believe because we have this higher notion of what is good and right, and that if we play by those rules, others will respect that, will see the value in this course of action and also abide by these rules. What in the events of 9/11/2001 make us believe this is possible with this foe?
We sent in troops with a very clear mission. Find, capture or kill the enemy where he is hiding and ensure they will never again be able to attack us on our soil. Very simple and straight forward so far, but things quickly got messy. It was soon understood both by the boots on the ground and their handlers back in Washington that there were not always clear cut lines
along which the population divided itself. This is a country, and a culture, deeply rooted in and still living according to societal rules that were very different from our own, both in practice and in theory reminiscent of the societal norms prevalent during the Middle Ages of Western Civilization. Loyalty is first to family then clan then tribe. The idea of a national identity was a distant second to a religious one.
These were a fiercely independent people who bridled against foreigners telling them how to live their lives. Add to that equation the fact that these foreigners were not of their religion, and the population was even more resistant. This is a population who gets all their news, views and opinions of the world filtered through the distorting lenses of a specific fundamentalist version of a religion and a specific historical context. Their leaders, the same ones who may not have agreed with the reality of Taliban rule as it had evolved but did agree with the principals of that rule, told the people that yes, topple the Taliban, but only so the groups the leaders were a part of could take their place. Do not listen to the Americans and Allies who are coming to our land, because they will corrupt you, lead you astray from the path of righteousness that is our culture and religion, for their true goal is to colonize us, to take over our lands and to turn our women and children into infidels who will not respect Islamic law and Sharia as we define it for you.
Our enemy predicted this reaction, in fact precipitated and fostered it; and so our political leaders responded by embarking on a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. They told us here at home that our intent, purpose and actions were all and solely aimed at riding the Afghan people of the influence of those other foreigners, both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda; we were simply wanting to level the playing field so the Afghan people could govern themselves, according to the cultural and religious norms of her people. Again, this was all well and good, but the execution was so badly flawed it was doomed from the onset.
Washington believed that the vast majority of Afghan people, or at least the half that made up the female portion of the population, would seize this opportunity to join the world in the 21st century with ideas like universal education and suffrage and tolerance for the religious differences, at least within the context of Islam, which are no less a part of Islam than they are of Christianity or any other religion. It was decided the best way to go about achieving these noble ends was to build schools, dig wells for safe water and predictable irrigation, construct and staff medical facilities and pass out candy to children. As I said, noble endeavors, but completely divorced from the realities of how power is perceived in this culture.
These were not the activities of soldiers or warriors, and rather than being seen as the benevolent actions they were intended, they were perceived as weaknesses to be exploited. In addition, while our soldiers were engaged in these activities, they were easy targets for IED’s, both vehicle and land based. The outpost was positioned here, the building site was there, and all the bad guys had to do was wait along the only passable routes. Someone in command finally figured out that the locals were rarely being killed in these attacks, intimating they knew or were being told when to stay away from specific areas. Steps were immediately taken, which primarily involved searching the adjacent villages and fields for the hideouts
the bad guys were using.
The next logical course of action was to arrest, detain or even kill those in the area the boots on the ground knew were not locals. But, once again, Washington decided that if the media got wind that our soldiers were capturing, detaining or killing people who were not actively shooting at us, it would be bad PR. It was decided that without evidence or the direct proof
equivalent to a smoking gun, we could not afford the bad press that would result from our not respecting the rule of law that is so ingrained in the American psyche. I guess no one explained to Washington that our soldiers were not dealing with Americans; they were dealing with people and a culture that respects actions made in power over notions like due process. While Washington didn’t seem to get this, but the enemy certainly did.
Our politicians could address the American people and tell us how our soldiers are doing humanitarian work as routinely or even more frequently than they were engaged in battles. They told us all how we respected the rights of the Afghan people and only engaged those who were clearly enemy combatants, in other words, those who were firing on our troops. Washington was almost sickeningly self-congratulatory in their praise for how our troops were conducting themselves in what they saw as this modern war, even as the death toll among coalition forces continued to mount.
The reality on the ground as it was and is still all too often being experience by our troops goes something like this:
A unit leaves base to move through the fields, looking for evidence of enemy strongholds and weapon caches, then on through the town to let the villagers know Coalition Forces are in the area; Command speaks with village elders while soldiers takes up position to form security perimeters for the protection of both the villagers and the commanders; soldiers are
encouraged to spend money in the local shops, if there are any. Patrol returns to base; action repeated daily, or multiple times a day, varying routes, contacting and interacting with as many locals as possible.
In this way, in a very short time, units stationed at a particular post became familiar with the locals in their area of operations, building trust, outlining public works projects in order of importance to the locals, such as wells, roads and schools and securing the area for the locals from the influence and oppression of the Taliban.
This is the standard operating procedure, the mission statement as it were, of each outpost, each base, and as dictated by Washington. All this is well and good, except for what it doesn’t say.
While on these patrols, while on these missions of getting to know the locals, garnering their trust and cooperation, units are ordered to pay attention to whom is paying undue attention to where they are, their routes and their plans. Those individuals are to be suspected as either Taliban operatives or local Taliban sympathizers. Discussing who those individuals are with village elders to determine if they are locals is a primary goal of interactions with elders and locals. If it is determined they are not locals, they are to be directly approached and questioned. If and only if those taking an undue interest in the movements of the patrols and/or the base are actively shooting are they to be engaged; noting a guy on a ridgeline has a weapon and either a cell phone or walkie-talkie is not sufficient provocation to proactively take them into custody much less fire upon them.
To recap – the patrol sees an armed guy on a hilltop watching the patrols, a guy who is not a local, either because no one in the village will say to which family he belongs or where he and or his family live or because he is obviously not an Afghan, the patrol is to do nothing unless or until the guy shoots at them. It’s no wonder the soldiers called themselves walking
Thankfully, after countless attacks and IED detonations, the rules of engagement were officially changed in May of 2010. Now, when a patrol sees the lookout, if they see a weapon, he is an enemy combatant and they no longer have to wait for him to fire before apprehending if possible, shooting if capture is not possible. It only took seven years and over fifteen hundred coalition deaths, nearly one thousand of which were Americans for Washington to begin to get the hint that the enemy does not and will not abide by the same noble, modern rules of war as us.
But, the damage was done. The locals had by and large stopped cooperating with us. It is still in their opinion in their own best interest to rid their countryside of these Taliban and insurgent fighters- the vast majority of whom are not locals or even Afghans. But after all these years of incomplete and ineffectual at best Coalition- read American- presence, they
simply do not trust us to do the job. They scratch their heads in amazement over our lack of understanding of how to do the job and question our commitment both in the interim and the long term.
The Taliban has been whispering in their ears and preaching from their pulpits that the Americans are weak, the Americans will not and cannot protect them, and if they do not support, hide and shield the Taliban, they will be made to pay here and now as well as in the future when the Americans go home. The Taliban says the American people have lost the will to fight; the Americans cannot even protect their own soldiers much less the Afghan people. The Taliban says, stand with us now or you and your family won’t live to see them go home.
To punctuate that point, a house with forty male wedding guests inside-including the groom-is blown up as punishment for the local elders’ cooperation with Coalition forces and the Afghan government.
To guarantee the cooperation of another village, a seven year old girl is strapped with explosives fitted with a remote detonator while guns are held to the heads of her father and family and she is made to walk toward an American patrol as it is returning to base.
The soldier that had to shoot that child to save his unit, the base and her family is still inpatient at Walter Reed and hasn’t spoken a word in over a year; he has younger sisters. Being told by the other soldiers, doctors, wounded combat vets and mental health professionals that the child was dead the moment they strapped those bombs to her has not helped heal his
fractured soul. Before he went silent, he said he wished he had been able to get close enough to the child to have died with her. Through his scope he saw the tears running down her cheeks, the emptiness, the hollowness, the utter despair in her eyes as she staggered towards them under the weight of all those bombs. That soldier saved his unit and base from that explosion, but because the child failed in the eyes of the Taliban, her entire family and many in the village were executed by the Taliban before Coalition forces could get there to save
This is the enemy we are fighting, and these are their tactics.
We here in the West, particularly in the U.S. see these acts as abominations against all mankind. Make no mistake, the Afghan people do as well. We hear of these stories through the survivors, our soldiers who do make it back home with enough of their minds and souls intact to speak, when we should be hearing about them on the nightly news, on the front page of every paper, as the lead off story on every media outlet.
The Afghan people have been living with the results of Washington’s policies of non-engagement, of conducting a civilized war for so long they have given up hope. They have understandably decided they are better off making whatever peace they can with the Taliban, finding a way to coexist with their oppressors than putting their faith, their trust and in every real sense, their lives and futures in the hands of the Americans.
I will not give the name of the officers and enlisted personnel with whom I’ve spoken, but I will repeat what they’ve told me. They say this war is unwinnable as it is currently being conducted. For ten years, we’ve abdicated any power we had, any chance we had in winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people because of the rules of engagement they are forced to follow, rules handed down the chain by politicians who don’t and maybe can’t understand the realities faced by our troops on the ground; the realities of the cultural context in which our enemy and the civilian population exists.
Still, they say there is a chance. A chance to both end this war, end the ever-increasing American casualties, and still be able to respect ourselves as a Nation, hold to our ideals as a people. These men have done multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan, and are willing to go back again tomorrow, if only they would be allowed to do the job the only way it can be
done successfully. I’ve heard the exact same plan, heard the exact same steps laid out by too many that have been there, know the country, culture, history and people not to accept the simple truth in what they say.
In a nutshell, the answer is to stop fighting a war via Washington politicians. Keep the ultimate mission statement intact, which is to hunt down, dismantle and disable where possible, destroy when necessary the enemy of both the U.S. and the Afghan people. Allow the commanders on the ground to address the enemy combatants in whatever way is necessary, whether that is capturing them and turning them over to the Afghan Police or by killing them where they hide, most often in the villages and homes of the Afghan people, without waiting for them to attack us or the civilian population.
I’ve seen the heads shake in sad acknowledgement that whatever inroads, whatever trust the Afghan people had for our presence has eroded, in some places to less than a microscopic layer of the silica sand and dirt that covers the countryside. I’ve seen the anger, the disappointment and the sadness these men carry like a pall across their faces at the understanding
that we will have to reshape our mission, recast our role in the eyes of the Afghan people to re-earn their trust that we will do the job they want us to do, the job we told them we would do, the job the American people were sold by the politicians - remove these parasites from the villages, countryside, caves and cities of Afghanistan.
I’ve seen the pain in the eyes of these soldiers who know many, too many will not come home from this, what they see as their final mission to end the war, a pain that is steeled with equal parts resignation of this fact and resolution to face the job until it is done. What is most heartbreaking of all is to see the despair and despondency that is near hopelessness that they will not be allowed to finish the job and we will end up walking away from a country, from a people, a place where countless lives have been lost just to have it all end up worse than when we arrived.
These soldiers care for the Afghan people nearly as much as they do for their brothers and sisters at arms. They see these people as victims, yes of their own culture, of their own making, but victims still. They lived there, they were generously fed by these people while on multiple day missions to secure a school so the locals have a safe place to send their
children, both boys and girls, to be educated about the world that is now aware of their existence as it hadn’t been since the demise of the Silk Road.
They found hundreds of bodies of locals, old men and women, children and babies, slaughtered, executed because those people wanted to be free of the oppressive yoke that is the Taliban. They brought in the Imam’s from other villages to say the proper prayers as they, the American soldiers, dug the graves. They carried the broken, shredded and bleeding bodies of children away from the carnage, using their own first aid supplies to tend them as best they could while they transported them to medical facilities, all the while using their own bodies as shields for the lives they were trying to save.
What moves me the most when speaking with these soldiers is the rage, the fury that burns that much hotter in their eyes when they talk of how much of it all could have been prevented, if only they were allowed to do their job. They are there, on the ground, in contact with these people day in and day out and they know who the enemy is; they know the guy who does not belong and if only they had been allowed to capture him when they first saw him, or even on second, third or tenth sight, the bodies they are carrying to the medics would not be full of shrapnel, missing limbs, devoid of life.
I’ve written it before, but it bears repeating. The most important question being asked about the war is, how much longer? Their answer is months. Months to finally, fully eradicate the threat to both the Afghan people and to the U.S. Months to clear the country of those foreign fighters that have poured across Afghan’s borders for the chance to fight the Americans
and have their pick of the spoils that will be the wreckage of the country. Months of decisive action to prove to the Afghan people that we mean what we say, will follow through with our promise to level the playing people so they may take back control of their own country, their own future. Months, if they were simply allowed to do their job. Otherwise, we might as well just bring all our troops home now and redeploy them in our cities, our ports, along our borders, because we will be fighting them here next.
What I’ve not written because I’ve not before now seen, is there is a new glimmer of hope in the eyes of these tried, tested and proven combat vets and officers. Of course, the cynicism where politicians are concerned is still there as well and quite understandable, but still, there is a ray of optimism glinting through their scowls.
As happened in May of 2010 when the powers that be finally allowed our soldiers to protect themselves from known enemy combatants before they were actively fired upon with the guns they could clearly see, it seems Washington is starting to listen to the boots on the ground when it comes to vetting those Afghans who volunteer to train, work and fight alongside
coalition forces. Political leaders both here and in Afghanistan have had their eyes on the prize, the prize being the numbers of Afghans joining forces, learning to fight, police and take control of their country ahead of the scheduled and much publicized pull out date of 2014, and have been blind to the dangers of not listening to those commanders, those troops who have been there for more than ten years who have been telling them that too many of those volunteers are in fact the very enemy we and the Afghan people have been
fighting all along.
They’ve been shouting up the various chains of command that this guy who wants to volunteer for training, wants to be armed by us is not who he says he is, is not from where he claims; he may have been acting as an interpreter for a couple years, but he is the suspected link in attacks on coalition forces and Afghan troops. Just because we haven’t been able to prove it does not make him any less suspect. They cry at least let us use the considerable knowledge we have gathered from our first-hand experience, from the commanders and troops in the area he claims to be from before we entrust him with a gun we supply and allow him to carry in our compound, alongside our troops. We are not paranoid, we know what we are doing, we understand this culture better than some bureaucrat, even one in uniform, back in Washington. Don’t tell us we have to get to a specific number at the expense of the due
diligence we are the most qualified to exercise.
The emotion I’ve found the most disturbing, and telling, is the disgust and disdain these soldiers feel for the political leaders they have had to swear to follow as part of their oath to serve. As sad as this is, it is nothing new. Every military force in history holds those who have been on the front lines, those who have fought, bled and cried alongside their men in the
highest regard.The opinion of those who have never soiled their uniforms on the field of battle is no different today than it was in Ancient Rome. Soldiers have always fought for the ideals of their homeland; political commanders have always used soldiers as pawns in their games of power. One would think that in thousands of year of warfare, we would have evolved. This is the new, modern, civilized war I would like to see us fight; a war directed by those who know the enemy, the terrain, the people and the culture. A war that can be won on the battlefield, in the hearts and minds of the people both here and abroad without consideration for those whose only goal is to get a seat at the trough that is politics.