General McChrystal Accepts American Casualties

After a series of mistakes made by American units in Afghanistan, a politicized general has made one military decision based on experience and sound judgement, and one political decision based on the whims of the international press. The first will streamline our war effort, the second will cost American lives.

General McChrystal has had a tough job, trying to bring about a victory for the USA and our NATO allies in Afghanistan despite all the odds. He has a compromised theatre of conflict, where he is severely limited in his ability to operate across national borders while his enemy is not, he is constantly criticized in international press while his enemy is not, and now, under the new administration in Washington, he is receiving less political cover, being given ownership of the war more directly in a political way so the new President can claim it isn’t “his”, and given fewer resources to accomplish the mission, mostly via spending cuts that are slowly starting to bleed American efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, beginning with contracts for civilian DoD contractors in both theaters about half where they were a few years ago, and continuing through to the inability of the Army to pay for both new upgraded equipment and replacement for what is lost in battle.

Despite all this, McChrystal has done a pretty good job… until now. Pushed to produce a political victory, he was embarrassed when several Afghani civilians were killed in by American forces during a critical time politically. He claimed that reducing civilian casualties was a cornerstone of his counter-insurgency strategy, and reasonably enough claimed that numerous special forces units operating in country who were not accountable to him were a problem. He therefore asked for all American units, including special forces units formerly under the jurisdiction of other agencies (one must assume that some intelligence and other US agencies have been using them until now) to be placed under his control. From a military perspective, this does make some sense, since a unified chain of command is considered a central tenet of military doctrine. It is easy for different departments to trip over one another if they are operating multiple combatant units in the same theater with little coordination.

Unfortunately, McChrystal also succumbed to the inevitable politicization of his position, making a political decision in the face of great public outcry against the civilian deaths (partly whipped up by blaming US forces for killing two women who were almost certainly dead before they arrived on site -possibly victims of honor killing or organized intimidation tactics against their community). McChrystal accepted more American casualties in Afghanistan when he placed restrictions on night raids by American troops. He did so for political reasons, and while I give him credit for being an expert in military affairs, he is not even remotely an expert in the realm of politics.

The restrictions came under pressure from Hamid Karzai, who wanted a total ban on the practice of operating at night and sometimes entering homes suspected of harboring terrorists (yes, I just used the ‘T’ word, call the ACLU). McChrystal told his troops to avoid night raids when possible, and to bring Afghan troops with them when they could not. While it sounds reasonable to say that Afghanis feel very strongly about their homes being entered by US troops in the middle of the night, a directive of this kind will (and probably already has) cost US lives.

This is because of the nature of the fight we are in. When I spent two years in the West Bank fighting a counter-insurgency that was ultimately successful in routing the Hamas organization from the area completely, I understood that we had several advantages against the terrorists we were fighting. Firstly, we had better equipment, better weapons, and usually better training. This meant for example that with a limited number of machineguns or heavy weaponry in the hands of Hamas, Tanzim, or the other organizations, we had weapons with a longer range and therefore could control open areas easily. Of course, this meant that most of the battles took place at close range in built up areas where the terms were more even. It also meant that we had night vision devices and most of our opponents did not. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of infantry being able to “own the night” in a counter insurgency operation. The Israelis have concentrated on night operations since World War II, when Wingate built a special unconventional tactics unit out of Jewish volunteers against the event of Nazi occupation of Palestine. Over the years, the ability to operate at night has proven devastatingly effective, and always favors the side with better equipment and training.

When we first went into Falluja, we had our Marines operating mostly during the day, holing up in houses at night, and fighting house to house where their advantages in firepower and technology were minimized. By some coincidence, they took a lot of casualties by fighting on their enemy’s terms. Night operations are difficult and risky. It is easy to make a mistake, which is why McChrystal has limited them. Of course, this applies to both sides, with a much greater difficulty faced by the side not equipped with night vision devices. If we are going to meet insurgents or terrorists, if there is going to be a fight, it is far better done at night than at any other time.

If the enemy never knows when or where American forces might turn up, as with the Israelis in the West Bank who conducted most of their operations in 2002 between 10PM and 4AM, they cannot easily plan the movement of materiel, weapons, drugs (which fund their operations), or personnel. The narrow, twisting confines of a Middle Eastern city are dangerous and intimidating, this cuts both ways. An enemy who has no idea what might be out in the dark waiting for him is just as intimidated (often more so) by the dark alleys of a Middle Eastern city as troops born two thousand miles away. If the enemy knows that we will aggressively hunt him wherever he may be at whatever time, he will do more hiding and less fighting. If he knows the night is safe, he will use it to set up traps, roadblocks, ambushes, and to enter the homes of Afghanis who we are leaving alone. Why will the enemy enter their homes at night? Because they use a tactic of intimidation. They will enter the homes of those known to give information to Americans, they will hold some demonstration killings (as the Palestinians did to a shopkeeper in East Jerusalem during the last Intifada, holding him down in the street at night and pouring battery acid on his face until he died), capture some relatives, and ensure the cooperation of the local community. If we are not going to enter houses, somebody else will, knowing that our boys will be in their bunks until sun up.

If the Afghanis know that Americans are out in the streets at night, they know that at least people who have consistent rules about who to engage and how to treat enemies are out there, instead of brutal terrorist thugs who rape their women and kill their relatives in front of them. (In Iraq, Al Qaida members took over a town and forced a family seen as sympathetic to Americans to sit down for a meal in their dining room. It was their own son on a platter that was brought in to them. Taliban and Al Qaida forces in Afghanistan can also be very brutal.) If Americans are conducting the raids, they know what to expect and they also know that they will get fewer raids if they help the Americans capture terrorists. In the West Bank, after the Palestinians complained that the IDF was entering homes at night, the IDF told them it would seize any position (home, building, whatever) that was used as a place to attack their troops. Within weeks, hundreds of Palestinians were coming forward, willing to tell Israeli intelligence who was a Hamas sympathizer and who was harboring an explosives lab. If they know the raids will abate if there are no targets to find, they will turn in the people who are fighting us rather than have their living room broken into.

General McCrystal made the decision to limit night raids knowing it would cost American lives. There is no way a man in his position would not know that. He decided that the good will generated from the Afghani parliament was worth the cost in our sons’ blood. That is a political calculation, and is highly flawed. Firstly, the Afghani parliament is not McChrystal’s boss, despite what the Obama White House has been telling him,  it is the American people, through the instrument of our Executive Branch. Secondly, that good will won’t last a week. The Afghani parliament must demonstrate that they are angry at McChrystal for local political reasons. If they want to be elected, they have to be on the forefront of chastising the American “occupiers”. If he gives in, they will find another excuse. He does not know politics, or he would realize this. Unfortunately, we have placed a man who is an expert on warfare in a position where he must also function as a statesman, with no experience or training in politics, and that is our failing. It is his fault that he fails to see the outcome of curtailed night operations though, since an enemy that knows we won’t chase them at night will operate more in the dark, will then be able to set up more ambushes, attacks, terror incidents, etc, and will then be able to engage in more fights than one forced onto the defensive. If there are more fights, more Afghani civilians will die in the long-term, however happy they are that we are treating their living rooms as inviolate. For a very transient short-term political gain we will spill more Afghani civilian blood, and lose more Americans long-term. Way to go, McChrystal. Maybe you think it’s worth it, but many of us do not.

We can win in Afghanistan by not playing by our enemy’s rules and not conducting a war based on public opinion. I have personally been involved in a successful counter-insurgency war, I know that we can succeed. Setting up lines our own soldiers can’t cross, whether it be dark hours or an invisible line in the desert marking the Pakistani border, is a great way to prolong the pain and repeat the mistakes we made in Vietnam.


~ by Jubal Biggs on March 17, 2010.

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