Some of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s defenders are lamenting the fact that a “fighting general” was cashiered by the Obama Administration (although Ambrose Burnside, Joe Hooker, and George Custer were all considered “fighting generals” too), but McChrystal’s reputation for blood-and-guts action was contradicted by the Rules of Engagement (ROE) that were a part of the counterinsurgency campaign strategy he adopted for Afghanistan, as Michael Hastings pointed out in his Rolling Stone article:
“Despite the tragedies and miscues, McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It’s “insurgent math,” as he calls it – for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. He has ordered convoys to curtail their reckless driving, put restrictions on the use of air power and severely limited night raids. He regularly apologizes to Hamid Karzai when civilians are killed, and berates commanders responsible for civilian deaths. “For a while,” says one U.S. official, “the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a ‘civ cas’ incident.” The ISAF command has even discussed ways to make not killing into something you can win an award for: There’s talk of creating a new medal for “courageous restraint,” a buzzword that’s unlikely to gain much traction in the gung-ho culture of the U.S. military. But however strategic they may be, McChrystal’s new marching orders have caused an intense backlash among his own troops. Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. “Bottom line?” says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.”
In other words, the troops want to do what they were trained to do, kill people and break things, not act as crossing guards for little Afghans going to school. But as McChrystal points out, and no doubt truthfully, killing people and breaking things fighting a war amongst a civilian population is no way to make friends and influence people, especially a people known for battling invading armies indefinitely no matter what cause or good intentions they were fighting for.
“Winning hearts and minds in COIN is a coldblooded thing,” McChrystal says, citing an oft-repeated maxim that you can’t kill your way out of Afghanistan. “The Russians killed 1 million Afghans, and that didn’t work.”
Indeed, even with strict Rules of Engagement, U.S. and allied troops are still killing the very people they are trying to save:
“In the first four months of this year, NATO forces killed some 90 civilians, up 76 percent from the same period in 2009 – a record that has created tremendous resentment among the very population that COIN theory is intent on winning over. In February, a Special Forces night raid ended in the deaths of two pregnant Afghan women and allegations of a cover-up, and in April, protests erupted in Kandahar after U.S. forces accidentally shot up a bus, killing five Afghans. “We’ve shot an amazing number of people,” McChrystal recently conceded.”
The Hastings article talks about the differences between McChrystal’s and the administration’s approach to the war. But what could those differences possibly be since both sides generally agree that U.S. troops need to be there and need to be out on the ground trying to nation-build Afghanistan? Perhaps this paragraph in a New York Times article from last September offers a clue:
“Among the alternatives being presented to Mr. Obama is Mr. Biden’s suggestion to revamp the strategy altogether. Instead of increasing troops, officials said, Mr. Biden proposed scaling back the overall American military presence. Rather than trying to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, American forces would concentrate on strikes against Qaeda cells, primarily in Pakistan, using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics.”
In other words, Biden wants to amp up fighting too. But instead of using U.S. troops he wants to use Predator drones and Hellfire missiles. After all, why sacrifice U.S troops when you can use robots to do the killing for you? Instead of putting their lives on the line in one of the most dangerous places in the world, the pilots are all safe and sound in their computer terminal outside Las Vegas playing video games all day, only these are the real thing.
Do you remember the line near the end of the movie Patton when he remarked that he would be glad not to be alive in world of push-button war “no sacrifice, no honor, no glory and no meaning to it all, just the living and the dead”? One can sense General McChrystal and his staff’s contempt for Vice President “Bite Me” may have to do with the sense these “warriors” do not wish to be replaced by machines when it comes to doing their jobs. It wouldn’t be surprising if they felt a sense of dishonor at what they would see as a cowardly approach to warfare by their county from 15,000 feet, one in which the human life of one of the combatants is not at all at risk. After all, they joined the military, did they not? I’m sure they knew beforehand it could be hazardous.
Indeed, this is the sad dilemma the U.S. military faces in Afghanistan. The Taliban will not stupidly fight U.S. soldiers in the open knowing full well they will be destroyed, so they fight amongst civilians, as dishonorable as it may be, in order to offset the U.S. advantage in firepower and technology. Because of this, like an elephant in a china shop, the U.S. military has had to tiptoe around the country trying to kill the enemy but not break anything. Unfortunately it’s impossible: even the drones make mistakes, and it’s not going to matter to an Afghan or a Pashtun from NWFP if their family is killed by Predator drone strike or by an errant shell from a U.S. artillery piece or gunfire from a helicopter, all are the same invaders to them. Perhaps having Predator drones allows the U.S. to fight in Central Asia far more cheaply with fewer lives lost (always a plus politically), but it is not going to make the Afghan army and police better trained, the Afghan government more honest and more credible to its people, and convince the Taliban to stop fighting the foreign occupier. And so long as that resistance continues the war will go on and on regardless of whether it’s the warriors or the drones doing the fighting.