May 19, 2009

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Vows to Lose War (Through the Eyes of a Child...) UPDATED

Hatched by Dafydd

UPDATED with a clarification; see below.

Former Lieutenent General Karl Eikenberry, now Barack H. Obama's Ambassador to Afghanistan, promises to "change tactics" so that minimizing "civilian" casualties, rather than destroying the enemy, becomes paramount:

In a face-to-face meeting Tuesday with the Afghan survivors of a recent bombing in the western province of Farah, the new American ambassador to Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, promised that the coalition forces would change their tactics in order to prevent civilian casualties in the future.

Acknowledging the hurt inflicted on the Afghan people by American airpower, General Eikenberry called the May 4 aerial bombardment in Bala Baluk district a tragedy and pledged to sharply reduce the chances of civilian casualties in future operations.

Lest you think this is just empty rhetoric, Ambassador Eikenberry expanded upon his theme:

The American ambassador said he had been shocked when he learned about the bombing, Mr Khedmat said by telephone. “It might have happened due to a mistake, so we will not repeat it in future and we will be much more cautious about civilian life in the future,” he said Mr. Eikenberry told the crowd....

General Eikenberry questioned the wisdom of dropping 2,000 pound bombs on houses when it is unknown who might be inside, and the balance between the short-term gain [!] of eliminating enemy fighters and the larger danger of alienating the general population, the former general said.

“We have to look very carefully at the military tactics that are being used,” he said. “We have to avoid having tactical victories that translate into a strategic loss.”

Several realities here point up the risibility of enacting such restrictive rules of engagement:

  • The Taliban's main tactic is to hide among civilians, specifically hoping to force us to inflict death and injury upon non-combatants.
  • Technically, the Taliban themselves are "civilians," since they're not members of any official military.
  • Taliban supporters in the Afghan media, in hospitals, and even in the Afghan government itself routinely exaggerate civilian casualty counts; so do Afghans who do not support the Taliban but also do not support the American presence there.

The third point above demonstrates why it's impossible to eliminate reports of civilian casualties, no matter how hesitant and tepid we become: If we fail to massacre women and children, the usual suspects will simply fabricate such incidents -- again.

As we should have learnt by now, hamstringing our troops in combat by overreacting to "atrocity" claims (real or imaginary) has very real, very predictable consequences. We're been down this road before, and it ends only one way: In a Vietnam-style snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory.

I'm shocked that the "father of the Afghan National Army" believes we can fight terrorists without inflicting civilian casualties. Certainly that was never the policy of Gen. Petraeus in Iraq; he used his army to protect civilians... but that did not mean abjuring from any combat unless we had absolute assurance that no non-combatants would be harmed.

I suspect that Eikenberry is taking his cue from his Commander in Chief; he reiterated America's, Secretary Hillary Clinton's, abject apology for not sanitizing the Afghan war so that nobody but the bad guys died (particularly since the "bad guys" dispute being the bad guys and insist that they are themselves innocent non-combatants).

This is yet another example of the adolescent "teen logic" of the Obama administration.

UPDATE 23:49: Commenter Binder, defending the decision by Ambassador Eikenberry, called my attention to an opinion piece by Lt.Col. David Kilcullen, Gen. David Petraeus' top expert on counterinsurgency warfare, calling for an end or dramatic scaling back of Predator drone attacks in Pakistan; the same piece was referenced by Ambassador Eikenberry in response to the incident above:

“It is clear to me that if we don’t get this right, we do run the risk of alienating the Afghan people and creating what David Kilcullen has called the accidental guerrilla,” he said, referring to a counterinsurgency expert who has advised Gen. David H. Petraeus. “Unwittingly and unintentionally we are driving away the Afghan on the ground, we are driving them away and consequently weakening the Afghan government.”

But if you investigate the incident itself, briefly sketched in the Times piece linked up top and discussed fairly extensively over the past few days (weeks?), three significant differences between it and the sort of thing Kilcullen decries are apparent:

  1. The incident above took place in Afghanistan, not Pakistan; unlike the latter, the government of Afghanistan is in no danger of collapsing anytime soon.
  2. The Afghanistan bombing had nothing to do with Predators remotely firing missiles to assassinate suspected "high value targets," which is what Kilcullen was talking about. It used 2,000-lb bombs, while Predators carry Hellfire missiles. In fact, the Afghanistan attack comprised a series of bombs by airplanes with American crews inside.
  3. Most important, however, is this: The Afghanistan attack was an airstrike called in to end a firefight -- not a remote assassination attempt.

As I understand it, the Afghan police made first contact with the Taliban group. They called in the Afghan National Army when then realized they were outgunned. But the huge Taliban military unit was even pushing the army units back... so they called in the Americans.

The firefight turned into a major battle, with boots on the ground from three different services -- two local and the Americans -- all of them taking heavy casualties. It was then, with even the American forces unable to dislodge the Taliban from a number of houses they were using as nests, that we called in air strikes.

Here is a description of the sequence from an earlier story in the Times; I had to tease the factual storyline out from its literary shields of moral finger-wagging and heartstring-tugging:

Farah, a vast province in the west, contains only a smattering of foreign special forces and trainers who work among Afghan police and army units. Exploiting the thin spread of forces, the insurgents sought to seize control of Granai and provoke a fierce battle over the heads of the civilian population, Afghan and American officials say.

After hours of fighting and taking a number of casualties, the American forces called in their heaviest weapon, airstrikes, on at least three targets in the village....

Colonel Julian, the American military spokesman, said that the airstrikes hit houses from which the Taliban were firing....

The police chief, Colonel Watandar, confirmed much of the villagers’ accounts of the fighting. A large group of Taliban fighters, numbering about 400, they estimated, entered the village and took up positions at dawn on May 4. By midmorning, the Taliban began attacks on police posts on the main road, just yards from the village, they said.

The fighting raged all day. The police called in more police officers, Afghan Army units and an American quick reaction force from the town of Farah as reinforcements.

By midafternoon, the exchanges escalated sharply and moved deeper into the village. Taliban fighters were firing from the houses, and at one point a Marine unit called in airstrikes to allow Marines to go forward and rescue a wounded Afghan soldier, said Colonel Julian, the United States military spokesman. After that, Taliban fire dropped significantly, he said. [This would have been some hours before the evening bombing about which controversy ensues. -- DaH]

A villager named Multan said that one house along the southern edge of the village was hit by a bomb and that one Taliban fighter was killed there. But villagers did not report any civilian casualties until the American planes bombed that night.

So in fact, what we had here was a major (battalion-sized) enemy force ensconced in a village, pinning down a smaller combined American and Afghan force; our guys had taken significant casualties; and according to American sources, the firefight was continuing. (Locals claim the fighting had already stopped, the Taliban had already withdrawn, and we bombed houses emptied of all combatants, for no reason other than pure malice. Each of us can decide which witness to believe.)

We called in airstrikes as part of routine close-air support... which is completely different from the remote Predator "assassinations" that David Kilcullen condemns in his opinion piece. And it truly worries me that our new ambassador, a lieutenant general until Obama named him, cannot see the crystaline distinction between the types of incident.

What Eikenberry called for was for us to essentially give up the superiority and security given us by our extraordinarily effective use of close-air support during ground combat ops, in favor of -- what? He offers no clue.

But if Kilcullen thinks we should refrain from using air power to extricate our soldiers when they are being beaten or stymied, he certainly has never written such a thing... no matter what Eikenberry believes.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, May 19, 2009, at the time of 3:21 PM

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The following hissed in response by: Binder

While I agree that there is a lot of "teen logic" from the current administration (the repeated policy flip-flops and difficulty of nominating people who actually pay taxes to high positions in the Executive branch), I actually think this particular move is a good idea.

A few days ago David Kilcullen, retired Australian Army Lt. Colonel and former counterinsurgency adviser to General Petraeus, wrote an opinion piece (with Andrew Exum) for the New York Times on this very subject, and his arguments mesh well with my prior reading on the subject of winning popular support in under developed nations.

Link @ NYTimes:
Link @ Small Wars Journal

Though I'm not convinced that the counterinsurgency strategy from Iraq can be overlaid on to Afganistan and/or Pakistan and be successful (there was too much going on in Iraq which aided the switch to COIN efforts that was not part of the COIN strategy itself, and which is not happening in the "-stans"), I don't think the odd Hellfire sent down into Pakistan is really that effective at doing anything except making the video-game warriors driving them feel like they're Doing Something. But I'm not read into that program, so the only information I have is what hits the various news mediums, but given how poor America's propaganda is, and how good that of the enemy has always been, I tend to agree with Kilcullen, Exum and Eikenberry that the Predator drone strikes are counter-productive due to the propaganda/public opinion dimension.

If simply killing people was the answer, the war would have been over long ago. I believe not upsetting civilians with even the appearance of unintentional civilian casualties would be an improvement to the current situation. Civilians being caught in a cross-fire while a unit is patrolling through the countryside is one thing. Unknowable, uncaring, impersonal death from the skies without warning is another. It's a lot easier for locals to be phlegmatic about friends and relatives accidentally killed by boots on the ground, who are trying to kill only the bad guys and (hopefully) are working to improve the common people's lives; when suddenly an explosion simply goes off, leaving people dead with no immediate reason (even if they really were bad guys), that's something else.

"Appearance is reality" they drilled into us at Quantico, but I often suspect that once people get promoted past O-4 they forget this basic fact. And somehow politicians get it with domestic policy, but refuse to believe that it is just as applicable in foreign policy. I guess it's not a "nuanced" enough concept to be considered applicable to foreign policy...

The above hissed in response by: Binder [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 19, 2009 7:21 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


The incidents are not comparable. I have written an update to this post clarifying the distinction.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 20, 2009 12:45 AM

The following hissed in response by: Binder

I have to agree with you that they're not comparable; that was my mistake for reading your original post too quickly and thus failing to understand what it was actually about.

Having corrected my initial error, I agree with you; anyone unwilling to call in air support in order to save the lives of boots on the ground is not going to be popular, and is going to face accusations of sacrificing lives of service members for political expediency. Oh, and they're probably not going to win.

The above hissed in response by: Binder [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 20, 2009 5:14 PM

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