Murphy's Law: Rules To Die From


September 20, 2011: The U.S. Army leadership is upset at the recent award of the Medal of Honor (the highest American award for valor) to U.S. Marine Corps sergeant Dakota Meyer. The army generals don’t begrudge sergeant Meyer his medal, because he risked his life two years ago, for several hours, in order to save the lives of 24 Afghan and American troops trapped in an ambush. What disturbs the army leaders most is that Meyer was not alone while performing his heroic act. He had a companion, Army captain William Swenson, But Swenson has received no recognition from the army. That’s because Swenson has been vocal about why he and sergeant (then corporal) Meyer had to perform those heroic acts (of driving a vehicle into the ambush, grabbing survivors and shooting their way out, and doing it five times.) Before the two off them drove off on their suicidal mission. Swenson tried to get a nearby army headquarters to provide artillery and air support for the trapped men, but the officers on duty refused.

This was because a new general had taken over command of U.S. troops in Afghanistan three months earlier, and issued strict rules on the use of American firepower when there was any risk to Afghan civilians. This was part of an effort to reduce civilian casualties. Troops in Afghanistan, and everyone back home, were told that these new rules would not prevent American troops getting fire support if their lives were in danger. But for Meyer and Swenson, the restrictions were killing American troops (in this case, four marines and a soldier.) The closest American headquarters had maps showing the ambush taking place near a village, so there was great reluctance to use bombs or artillery.

Meyer and Swenson both subsequently left the military. But Swenson kept pressing the army to punish the officers at the nearby headquarters who repeatedly refused to provide any fire support for the trapped troops. If Swenson, Meyer and two other marines had not driven in, at great risk to themselves, over twenty U.S. and American troops would have died. The two other marines were awarded the Navy Cross (the second highest award). Swenson is believed to be up for a medal, but the army won’t say what, or when. The army has not punished anyone for refusing fire support, and apparently wishes the entire matter would fade away.

In 2009, American and Afghan troops were not the only ones upset at the new rules. At the same time Swenson and Meyers were risking their lives because of the new policy; other American troops were increasingly encountering angry Afghan civilians, who demand that the Americans act more decisively in pursuing and killing Taliban gunman, even if it put Afghan civilians at risk. This was an unexpected side effect of that change in the U.S. rules of engagement (ROE).

The new ROE was a response to popular (or at least media) anger at civilians killed by American smart bombs. As a result of the new ROE,  American commanders had to decide who they should respond too; Afghan civilians asking for relief from Taliban oppression, or Taliban influenced media condemning the U.S. for any Afghan civilians killed, or thought to be killed, by American firepower. What to do?

Taliban propaganda, and the enthusiasm of the media for jumping on real, or imagined, civilian deaths caused by foreign troops, made people forget that far more civilians (about four times as many) had been killed by the Taliban. But because Afghans have been conditioned to expect more civilized behavior from the foreign troops, much less media attention is paid to the civilians killed by the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Of course, Afghan civilians are aware of who is killing most of the civilians, and that's why the Taliban and al Qaeda are moving down in the opinion polls. But the media, hammering foreign troops every time they kill a civilian, or are simply (often falsely) accused of doing so, led to the ROE becoming far more strict than it ever was in Iraq. Thus one Taliban victory you don't hear much about is how they turned their use of human shields into a powerful, and very successful, propaganda weapon against NATO and U.S. troops, and an excellent way to avoid getting attacked.

Under the new ROE, you had to, in effect, do a casualty analysis and consult a lawyer, before a deliberate missile or smart bomb attack is made on the Taliban. To their credit, the U.S. Air Force targeting specialists (who do most of this) can carry out the analysis quickly (often within minutes). Even the lawyers have gotten quick at the decision making game. The bad news is that attacks are often called off just because there's some small risk of harming civilians. That’s what happened when Swenson and Meyer called for support.

The Taliban were aware of the ROE, and took advantage of it. The Taliban tried to live among civilians as much as possible. But the Taliban and al Qaeda do have to move around, and the ability of NATO and U.S. ground forces, aircraft and UAVs to keep eyes on a Taliban leader for weeks at a time, has led to the deaths of many smug guys who thought they had beat the system.

The U.S. Air Force has managed to reduce civilian casualties, from deliberate air attack, to near zero. Most of the Afghan civilian casualties occur when airpower is called in to help NATO and U.S. troops under attack. In these conditions, the ROE is supposed to be much more flexible. But Taliban use of civilians as human shields can sometimes allow friendly troops to get killed. The tactics used by foreign troops changed to adapt to this, and there were some tense situations where Afghan or American troops were getting hammered, calling for a smart bomb, and told that they can't have it because of the risk of civilian casualties. This is what happened to Swenson and Meyers.

Those new restrictions on the use of air power, and the greater Taliban use of civilians as human shields, enabled the Taliban to avoid a lot of situations where they would otherwise get killed. When they are out in the open, the Taliban still get toasted regularly by foreign troops (with or without the use of smart bombs). The new ROE was based on the fact that the Taliban were increasingly openly hated by Afghan civilians. This has led to more tribes getting angry enough to fight the Taliban. This is why outside of Pushtun areas (most of southern Afghanistan), you see very few Taliban. The Taliban are basically a Pushtun thing, and non-Pushtun people are violently opposed to any Taliban moving into their territory.

The new American ROE hoped to exploit that growing hatred of the Taliban in the south. But in some areas of the south, particularly Helmand province (where most of the world’s heroin comes from), where the Taliban and locals are in the drug business together, there are still fans of the Taliban. Moreover, the Taliban recruits heavily in Helmand, and adjacent provinces. This is where the Taliban came from (initially as refugees living in Pakistan.) Helmand has always been ground zero in the fight against the Taliban, and now the fight has gotten harder, and more dangerous.



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