In June 2009, Gen Stanley McChrystal took over as the overall commander of US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Shortly after he took command, he issued new ROEs aimed at helping US and ISAF forces win the hearts and minds of the locals. This was supposed to herald a new phase of Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Among the new restrictions, apparently designed primarily to address complaints from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a man with little to no military experience prior to being protected by ODA 574 and installed as the new leader of a Pashtun resistance against the Taliban, were prohibitions on night raids and air support missions aimed at residential compounds.
The loss of the cover of darkness to go after Taliban, Haqqani, Al Qaeda, and other bad actors is bigger than has been talked about. That is a major tactical advantage gone. While there has been some evidence that the bad guys have night vision, it’s still not widely used, while our warfighters have had better and better night vision capabilities in recent years. The likelihood of getting in, getting the target, and getting out without anyone getting shot at night is a lot higher than trying to do it in broad daylight. The classic example is Mogadishu in 1993. A more recent example is my own platoon, callsign Lowlife, in Trek Nawa, just east of Marjah. We’d gone in during the middle of the night, but because the rules specifically stated that we were not allowed to enter a compound at night, we were out in the fields, hunkered down in the open when the shooting started at daylight. We had nowhere to move except by the two canals that were within crawling distance.
That fight ended up lasting 8 hours. Most of that time we were surrounded, and at times unable to even lift our heads out of the dirt far enough to shoot back, the volume of fire coming from the Taliban was high enough. So we called for air support. We had two JTACs in our platoon.
Over the next several hours, support mission after support mission was denied. Why? Because the target was a residential compound. We were taking accurate fire from that compound, we could even see the loopholes the enemy had knocked in the walls, and see the dust and smoke from their fire. But no, somebody back in the TOC wouldn’t clear the air support to drop because that was a residential compound, and some Afghan’s feelings might get hurt if we blew up his house. That wouldn’t be proper COIN, you know.
While we didn’t lose anyone in that particular fight, it hasn’t always been the case. In September of 2009, in Ganjgal, Kunar Province, Marine 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, Gunnery Sergeant Aaron Kenefick, Gunnery Sergeant Edwin Johnson, and HM3 James Layton were cut off and killed in action when the TOC wouldn’t clear fires into the village, despite the fact they were taking heavy contact from that very village.
In 2010, the ROEs got even worse. Snipers were not allowed to engage unless they were taking accurate fire themselves. The “Escalation of Force” procedures went so far as requiring soldiers and Marines to point their weapon, instruct the armed Afghan to put his weapon on the ground, shine their weapon light in his face, then use a visible laser red dot on his chest, then fire a warning shot, and only then could they shoot center mass. If the other guy is armed and intends you harm, that’s plenty of time for him to shoot you. The ROEs had been that at any hostile act or discernible hostile intent, you could shoot. Now, in order to preserve Afghan feelings, you had to give them a good crack at you first before you were allowed to defend yourself.
Separate from McChrystal’s ROEs are the PPE requirements. Time and again, some new piece of armor becomes absolutely required. Study after study has shown that the maximum fighting load a soldier can be expected to move and fight with is about 48lbs. Once all the Personal Protective Equipment, comms, weapons, and ammunition are added up, it can come close to 75 to 100lbs. Add in sustainment supplies and the weight soars higher. Our guys become lumbering sitting ducks, unable to maneuver or even to take cover properly, because they are weighed down with more weight than the human body can reasonably handle, all to assuage someone’s guilt back home that not enough is being done to protect the troops.
McChrystal’s COIN strategy has not worked. It has never been shown to work in history. Wars are not won by sacrificing your troops on the altar of the other side’s sensibilities. War is violence and coercion, not gentle persuasion. Placing more value on an idea that hasn’t been shown to work than on your soldiers’ lives is not only a recipe for disaster. It is a betrayal of responsibility.