Sunday, February 24, 2008

Afghanistan Combat - Civilian Casualties and the Impossible Goal

From the New York Times comes this article by Elizabeth Rubin, who was embedded with Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korengal River valley of northeastern Afghanistan.

The author originally went to the Korengal Valley to find out why there have been so many civilian casualties associated with the Afghan counterinsurgency. However,

After a few days, the first question sparked more: Was there a deeper problem in the counterinsurgency campaign? More than 100 American soldiers were killed last year, the highest rate since the invasion. Why were so many more American troops being killed?

What follows is an article describing the extraordinary courage, despair, and pain of soldiers who've been set an impossible task. Rubin introduces us to their commanding officer, 26-year old Captain Dan Kearney, and to the men, some of whose deaths and grievous wounds she witnessed while accompanying them on their patrols and operations.
the Americans have steadily increased their presence in Kunar province, fanning out to the small platoon-size outposts that have become the signature of the new counterinsurgency doctrine in both Afghanistan and Iraq ... The soldiers of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team live there in dusty tents and little wooden huts ... the place was protected by not much more than concertina wire and sentries ...

Dan Kearney ... had been in Iraq ... But as hard as Iraq was ... nothing was as tough as the Korengal. Unlike in Iraq, where the captains and lieutenants could let down their guard in a relatively safe, fortified operating base, swapping stories and ideas, here they had no one to talk to and were almost as vulnerable to enemy fire inside the wire as out ...

And unlike every other place I’ve been in Afghanistan ...the Korengal had no Afghan police or district leaders for the Americans to work with ... As Kearney put it ... the Korengal is like a tough Los Angeles neighborhood, “and we’re the L.A.P.D. kicking in the door, arresting guys, demanding information about the gangs ... Now we’ve angered them for so many years that they’ve decided: ‘I’m gonna stick with the A.C.M.’ ” — anticoalition militants — “ ‘who are my brothers and I’m not gonna rat them out.’ ”
Kearney and his men replaced a unit of the 10th Mountain Division so traumatized by their tour that
near the end of their tour, many would sit alone on the fire base talking to themselves. Privates disobeyed their sergeants, and squad leaders refused to step outside the wire to show the new boys the terrain. No one wanted to be shot in the last days of his tour.

Kearney's predecessor had promised he would not bomb Afghans' homes, and Kearney tried to keep that promise:
When Kearney’s moment of decision came, two of 2nd Platoon’s sergeants, Kevin Rice and Tanner Stichter, had been shot, and the fight was still going on. Kearney could see a woman and child in the house. “We saw people moving weapons around,” Kearney told me. “I tried everything. I fired mortars to the back side to get the kids to run out the front. I shot to the left, to the right. The Apache” — an attack helicopter — “got shot at and left. I kept asking for a bomb drop, but no one wanted to sign off on the collateral damage of dropping a bomb on a house.” Finally, he said, “We shot a javelin and a tow” — both armor-piercing missiles. “I didn’t get shot at from there for two months,” Kearney said. “I ended up killing that woman and that kid.”

Rubin goes on to describe the history of Korengali hostility toward the Americans. It wasn't based on their hatred of us "for our freedoms" as our President is so fond of saying. It wasn't because they were seeking a utopian new caliphate or trying to impose Taliban rule on Las Vegas. It wasn't that they were pawns of Osama Bin Laden. No, it was because when the Americans arrived in 2001
the Pech Valley timber lords and warlords had their ear. Early on, they led the Americans to drop bombs on the mansion of their biggest rival — Haji Matin. The air strikes killed several members of his family ... and the Americans arrested others and sent them to the prison at Bagram Air Base. The Pech Valley fighters working alongside the Americans then pillaged the mansion. And that was that. Haji Matin, already deeply religious, became ideological and joined with Abu Ikhlas, a local Arab linked to the foreign jihadis ... Kearney met as many villagers as possible to learn the names of all the elders and their families. But he inherited a blood feud between the Korengalis and the Americans that he hadn’t started, and he was being sucked into its logic.

Rubin describes a frustrated and increasingly traumatized unit full of short-timers who had been stop-lossed and could see no progress and no end to their own suffering. A number of them were on anti-depressants and
after five months of grueling foot patrols up and down the mountains, after fruitless encounters with elders who smiled in the morning and were host to insurgents in the evening and after losing friends to enemy fire, Captain Kearney’s men could relate to the sullen, jittery rage of their predecessors ...

The article goes on to describe Operation Rock Avalanche, a chaotic and brutal air assault on the village of Yaka China. In stark language and with accompanying photos Rubin tells of an operation which resulted in five dead and eleven wounded civilians and angry elders wavering between accepting the Americans' help or seeking vengeance. They opted for vengeance.
THE DAY AFTER the meeting with the elders of Yaka China, Yarnell and John could hear insurgents trying to pinpoint where Kearney and his men were ... We could hear someone who called himself Obeid saying he’d do whatever the Yaka China elders decided — whether to cooperate with the Americans or take revenge ...

Kearney ... would fool the insurgents, feigning a troop extraction when the helicopters came for resupply and pushing out his best guys in small “kill teams.” We heard the insurgents say, “We have wolves on them,” meaning spotters. A hoarse, whispering insurgent had eyes on either Sgt. Larry Rougle and his scouts or on Lieutenant Piosa and his rear guard ... Then nothing happened for almost 24 hours.

Rougle — who was called Wildcat — was on his sixth deployment since Sept. 11, 2001. He was with the first group of Rangers in Afghanistan ...

I hung out with Piosa and his crew ... in a moment, recess was over. The insurgents were on them. Bullets ricocheted all through the woods ... I followed Piosa through the brush toward the ridge. We came upon Rice and Specialist Carl Vandenberge behind some trees. Vandenberge was drenched in blood ... Rice was shot in the stomach ...

Piosa moved on to the hill where the men had been overrun. I saw big blue-eyed John Clinard, a sergeant from North Carolina, falling to pieces. He worshiped Rougle. “Sergeant Rougle is dying. It’s my fault. . . . I’m sorry. . . . I tried to get up the hill. . . .” Sergeant Rougle was lying behind him ...

Two of Rice’s squad mates appeared, eyes dilated. They couldn’t believe they’d seen, up close, the ghosts they’d been fighting for the last five months. “I saw him in the eyes,” Specialist Marc Solowski said. “He looked at me. I shot him.” He and Specialist Michael Jackson had crawled up the hill twice trying to retake it. Each time the insurgents in “manjammies” whipped them back with machine-gun fire. There was blood on the stones around us. Some thought they saw blood trailing down toward the village of Landigal, where they were sure an insurgent had dashed into a cottage.

“We’re not losing this hill again,” Piosa shouted. “This hill is ours!” He wanted bombs to be dropped immediately.

“There’s women praying in that house,” Dunn shouted back.

... The F-15 known as Dude was en route, the Apaches were chasing men and Kearney — who had bolted down the mountain, throwing grenades in caves — was barking orders ... He wanted to punish the valley. Stichter had his eyes on a guy pacing a rooftop in Landigal and wanted to blow his head off. Specialist Mitchell Raeon, whose uniform was now soaked in Rougle’s blood, had the guy in his scope but couldn’t range that far. “That’s a female,” Dunn said.

Kearney had identified insurgents who’d dashed into a house and wanted to hit them, but Stichter got back word from Camp Blessing saying the target was too close to other houses. Kearney sent back a reminder — you let some guys get away the other night. It was impossible to know for sure, but Kearney believed they were the guys who had killed Rougle, and now, he said, you’re going to let another group get away?

Someone cursed, then said, “They’re all leaving the house.”

... with no warning, an F-15 dropped a bomb on Landigal, but off target, or so it seemed. Kearney was furious. He was sure headquarters had intentionally missed the house he had wanted hit.

I noticed Raeon was packing and unpacking Rougle’s things. Rougle’s scouts were in disarray, rudderless, and admitting it. Raeon said he kept seeing in his mind Rougle’s face alert and then dead, switching back and forth; he wanted it to stop.

The next day brought another brief firefight, and Rougle’s scouts rallied swiftly. They said they felt him watching and proud. There were more bomb drops and refusals to drop bombs, and then Becky, everyone’s favorite Apache pilot, swept in. Not only did she offer the comforting voice of a woman seeping right into their ears, but Becky was one of the most aggressive shooters. She flew up and down the canyon walls seeking out and rocketing insurgents. We heard them on the radio again boasting about retreating to safety under fire.
And that's it. Seven men lost and no progress whatsoever, just a lot of blood and pain. No resolution.

This article does call into question how we're supposed to win over the hearts and minds of reclusive, clannish, and impoverished people who live by the blood feud. There are no easy answers here, but it is clear that the entire burden of this war, particularly this part of the two fronts we are maintaining, has fallen on small groups of soldiers. The men of Kearney's unit had been in almost constant combat for 15 months and several were stop-lossed. That is unconscionable. Even the jungle combat of World War II contains few examples of men kept on the line for more than a month before being relieved and sent rear-ward for rest and recuperation. Months ago I read an article about the ground-breaking psychological studies of men in combat during World War II and recall reading that the motto became "Every Man Has His Breaking Point." These men are clearly at their breaking point and not only they, but innocent civilians, will suffer. There is no excuse to place such a burden on such a small number of people.

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