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Garlock: Worrying about our troops

Terry Garlock's picture

Last week Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele made the mistake of speaking his mind at a Connecticut fund-raiser when he said about Afghanistan, “This is a war of Obama’s choosing ... This is not something the United States has actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in.”

It is dishonorable to publicly castigate our own war and thereby encourage the enemies killing Americans, as the Democrats – and notably Senator Barack Obama – did with the Iraq war. That is just one reason the GOP should fire Mr. Steele today. The other reason is that he is clearly stupid, both factually and politically.

But the root of Mr. Steele’s comments is a worry about winning what has become America’s longest war, and many conservatives are quietly worried, with good reason. Historically, empires have failed in their quest to conquer the tough people and geography of Afghanistan. American forces are the best equipped and trained, and now the most combat experienced in the world. Will we be the first to win a victory there?

Now the U.S. is prosecuting a counter-insurgency (COIN) war, designed to gain the confidence and good will of the civilian population by protecting them. That means restraint in how we fight, escalating the risk to our troops with restrictive Rules of Engagement (ROE), and I worry. Can we win the hearts and minds in Afghanistan?

I’m not even sure we can understand them, and I worry.

When our enemy knows our objective is to minimize civilian casualties, and they do know, their tactic of embedding themselves within the human shield of civilians intensifies while our troops must meet higher and higher standards to use our considerable firepower against the enemy.

Every warrior knows the key to victory in combat is deception and overwhelming force, always avoiding a “fair fight.” By contrast, the key to COIN is restraint, which to critics turns a fighting force into the Peace Corps.

Afghanistan ROE require the enemy’s weapon to be in view in order to return fire. That means fire clearly coming out of a home is not enough justification to shoot back if the weapon cannot be seen. Taliban troops know they can shoot at American troops from cover, throw down their weapon and then stand safely in plain view.

Lawyers are in the approval chain for close air support and artillery support of our ground troops, support that is denied if civilian homes are nearby, never mind consequences to our own troops.

Night operations are limited.

Only women may search an Afghan woman.

A remote U.S. outpost is under night attack by Taliban forces, while an Apache helicopter has in its infrared sights a tight formation of 14 heavily armed Taliban, climbing the mountain toward the U.S. defenders. The pilot calls for clearance to fire, “They are now 200 meters from the closest Kalat (civilian house), still standing in a tight group with their weapons. Requesting clearance to fire, over.”

While the enemy advance on U.S. forces, the approving authority requires additional checks and assurances of civilian safety six times over a 10-minute period, before finally giving clearance to fire on the enemy. The Apache takes additional time to line up their firing lane to minimize the possibility of collateral damage while reporting this measure by radio, then fires to kill the enemy.

If that doesn’t sound too onerous to spare civilian lives, I suggest you set a clock for 10 minutes and watch the seconds click off one by one while assuming your son is one of those troops under fire and desperately waiting for air support.

A U.S. unit receiving enemy mortar fire radioed a request for an artillery illumination round to light up the area. Request denied because the canister that falls from the round might hit a civilian.

A U.S. unit took casualties from a roadside IED they knew had been placed a short time before. Suspicious looking villagers laughed at the U.S. casualties then fled into a home, which our troops can only search with Afghan National Security Forces, who refused to search because, “They are good people.”

These are just a few small examples.

I am no expert on COIN, but I do know fighting with restraint costs American lives, and it is no surprise that Afghan civilian casualties are down while U.S. casualties are way up, and I worry.

How many of our own sons’ lives are we willing to pay to purchase Afghan civilian good will? How resilient can that good will be, given the vast cultural and religious divide, and a central Afghan government widely regarded as corrupt? I worry about our troops.

Now that General Petraeus is assuming command, I am encouraged that he promises a review of Rules of Engagement and hope he makes changes in favor of protecting American lives.

He literally wrote the book on COIN, he seems to be our best and brightest, and I do hope he can wrangle a victory out of that desolate place. I do hope he can fend off a back door defeat delivered from the halls of Congress.

But I worry.

[Peachtree City resident Terry Garlock writes opinion columns occasionally for The Citizen. His email is tgarlock@mindspring.com.]

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