Much has been written about the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategies and tactics being used in Afghanistan and Iraq—or rather not. Back in 2007-2008, during my army days in Kandahar, I remember commanders endlessly bragging about how “we totally nail that COIN thing,” always gargling out quotes from the likes of COIN scholar David Galula. He was a French army officer who fought in the Algerian Independence War and is considered the leading COIN theoretician. He’s even cited as an inspiration to David Petraeus’ “Surge” strategy in Iraq, helping make that war a little less of a fiasco than it eventually became.
Except we weren’t. At all. This is the first in a three-part series of articles that will address serious issues about the way US, Canadian and other NATO countries conducted what they thought were COIN operations. I will suggest new approaches that, in current and future conflicts, may improve efficiency and minimize civilian deaths so that wars can no longer be, in the words of my former PSYOPS platoon commander, “about buying time.”
Part 1 : Snipers
In October 2007, a Taliban mortar team was shelling on Canadian positions near Gundhey Ghar. A reconnaissance patrol with an embedded sniper team was dispatched and they pinpointed the insurgents’ location. Carrying a .50 cal. McMillan TAC-50 rifle (designated C15 in the Canadian Forces arsenal) with a 1,970-yard effective range, the snipers requested permission to engage the enemy. Authorization for snipers had to come from the brigade, i.e. a brigadier-general. Given the caliber and 2,641-foot velocity of the weapon, taking out both insurgents and disabling the mortar tube was well within the capabilities of the sniper team, with next-to-no risk of killing or injuring civilians. Permission was nevertheless denied and a 500-pound bomb was dropped on the insurgents instead.
Objective destroyed, mission accomplished, right?
Wrong. Several Afghan villagers were injured during the air strike. A few days later, the number of IEDs had tripled in the area surrounding the Canadian position. All of the energy and resources spent establishing vital relationships with the local tribes was destroyed by the Taliban’s propaganda efforts.
It’s unclear what motivated the decision to resort to Close Air Support instead of using the sniper team that was already available and in-range. But if the desired effect was to send a message about NATO’s firepower, it meant that the brass hadn’t grasped the primary concepts of COIN warfare. In wars like the one we fought in Afghanistan, it’s bad news.
Yet, snipers are probably one of the many military assets that show the greatest potential when conducting operations based on a COIN strategy. Unlike conventional warfare, where uniformed soldiers with mostly equal capabilities square off against each other, wars like the latest one in Afghanistan involve a wicked enemy that’s hidden within a local population that may or may not support them and, if so, often does so out of fear or despair.
So, fighting an unconventional enemy like Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda foreign fighters primarily with conventional means—tanks, artillery guns, mechanized infantry— already sows the seeds of defeat as they inflict massive civilian casualties and damage to infrastructures, oftentimes the ones that reconstruction projects are aiming to improve.
Snipers, on the other hand, achieve quite the opposite. They cause next to no civilian casualties, one notable caveat being the potential of bystanders caught in a crossfire. Modern sniper rifles like the TAC-50 have incredible range and are effective against enemy personnel, vehicles, weapons and equipment. They’re invisible, meaning that most civilians don’t witness the kills on a broad scale and the enemy can’t return fire. That last characteristic, combined with a focused PSYOPS campaign—another unconventional asset—would have a deterring effect on a good portion of enemy fighters and reassure locals that allied armies take great care at targeting enemies only.
Now, I realize some people out there, veterans or not, might see this as wishful thinking mostly because, and I’m very aware of this, snipers are scarce. But the US Army already understood the need and, from 2003 to 2011, Fort Benning’s sniper school opened their doors and increased the number of open slots for students from 163 to 570.
Maybe it’s time the Canadian Forces do the same if they’re going to keep on fighting in insurgency contexts. And they might—aside from the ever-brewing turmoil in Ukraine, Africa is another highly discussed future theater of operation for combat Canucks.