Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Rules of Engagement (Or, How we Turned a Fighting Chance to Win the War in Afghanistan into a Sure-fire Way to Lose)

Tom Maguire writes a post today that threatens to make me sick to my stomach. In Rules of Engagement, he relays the following via McClatchy Newspapers:

...four Marines died in an ambush in Afghanistan.

The four Marines were part of a US training group attached to a larger Afghan unit. The team (60 Afghan soldiers, 20 border police officers, 13 Marine and U.S. Army trainers and Mr. Landay) had arranged to meet with some village elders, but the meeting was apparently tipped to the Taliban, who prepared a deadly welcome.

In addition to the betrayal by either the village elders or the Afghan security forces, the Marines were let down by the new US rules of engagement meant to reduce civilian casualties:

U.S. commanders, citing new rules to avoid civilian casualties, rejected repeated calls to unleash artillery rounds at attackers dug into the slopes and tree lines — despite being told repeatedly that they weren't near the village.

Helicopters that were supposed to be available on five minutes notice took an hour to arrive.

New ROE kept US forces from engaging the Talibani ambush in a way that would have ensured it's defeat and contributed to the death of 4 US Marines. The fact that the Taliban knew the force was coming is a bigger question that of course must be addressed but is one I'm not focused on.

In 2007 while we all debated the Surge in Iraq, I first came to recognize the self-limiting nature of US Rules of Engagement thanks to the contributions at Captain's Journal. Herschel Smith succinctly summarized the negative effect the then-current ROE's were having. The problem was two-fold.

Not only were there not enough forces in place to provide the security we wanted and the country needed, the ROE's under which forces were acting kept them from engaging insurgents and Al-Qaeda in any meaningful way that would further our strategic goals. I see a glimpse of something similar in this situation.

I've never accepted the parallels that some have drawn between Vietnam and Iraq and I certainly don't agree that there are any between Vietnam and Afghanistan in the larger sense. Maybe between the Soviet occupation and our current situation (though Fred Kagan goes a long way to debunking that notion here) but most definitely no to any thought that Afghanistan must ultimately end like Vietnam did.

However, adopting ROE's that do nothing to further your strategic objectives, that are so focused on creating no collateral damage--worthy in and of itself--that your own forces are exposed to greater risks is counter-productive. Wars must be fought to be won or there is no reason to fight them.

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