“Kill-em All, Let God Sort Them Out.” This is a popular slogan with America’s right-wing and it has unofficially become the centerpiece of America’s strategy of desperation in Afghanistan. As will be explained, this flawed strategy is made possible by the Pentagon’s secret “rules of engagement.” Counterinsurgency or COIN has now been jettisoned as a U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The only goal now is to kill as many real or imagined Taliban as possible, as quickly as possible, so that the U.S. can retreat “with honor” claiming success. The problem with that goal is that is it creating new and long-term enemies for the West among the growing civilian casualties, and it is fueling the conflict. The United States is likely to find itself in the same endpoint as in Iraq. Exhausted, it will retreat under cover of darkness, leaving no friends behind, and leaving Iran and al-Qaeda stronger.
In the United States today, Pentagon surrogates are speaking out, publishing books and writing editorials in an attempt to explain away America’s pending defeat in Afghanistan. It is alternatively being dismissed as due to “lack of resources” or due to the Karzai government or due to the failure to pursue peace talks with the Taliban. The dirty secret that no one wants to discuss is that the U.S. military lost the war because it lacked the commitment to win. Put simply, senior military officials never believed that the war was worth American lives and therefore they were not psychologically prepared to wage a protracted low-intensity, military campaign. The best evidence of this is the rules of engagement that the Pentagon set forth for the Afghan battlefield.
The rules of engagement were a recipe for disaster and are at the core of a deep-seated problem for the U.S. Government in its “war on terror.” At the apex of the rules there is always one key, overriding priority. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, that number one priority was to protect American forces. It is crucial to note that the apex was not victory over the Taliban and al-Qaeda, or the protection of Afghan women and children, but the safety of U.S. troops and diplomats. The real reason that the rules are labeled “secret” is that they are embarrassing and disreputable.
General Ray Odierno, whose heavy-handed, French/Algerian-type tactics in Tikrit helped to fuel the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, reportedly gave a speech at Basin Harbor, Vermont on June 9, 2004 in which he admitted that protecting his troops (not achieving victory or protecting Iraqi women and children) was his number one priority. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the same, as has recently her successor, John Kerry. These defects doomed both military campaigns. Pentagon and State Department officials failed to realize that achieving victory in the shortest period of time should have been the number one priority, as it would have brought American personnel home (where they would have been truly safe).
The problem with placing American safety at the apex of the rules of engagement is that such then permitted the U.S. military to commit thousands of abuses, all in the name of protecting Americans at all costs. There were unnecessary killings, checkpoint shootings, highway shootings, arbitrary arrests, abusive night home raids and errant air attacks, all of which inflamed the populace and fueled a decade-long war in Afghanistan. It did not matter that such abuses aided Taliban and al-Qaeda recruitment and therefore were counterproductive. Winning was not the focus.
The U.S. military continues to conceal many of the key statistics of its wartime abuses. One of them is to examine checkpoint killings. According to some available information, it appears that 95% or more of checkpoint shootings resulted in innocent civilians being killed, which fostered cycles of revenge against U.S. occupation forces. Logically, the result would be to change the rules of engagement in order to bar the firing on civilian vehicles, as the soldiers were wrong 95% of the cases. That change might slightly increase the number of Americans killed in the short-term, but likely would have led to a long-term drop in casualties as the cycles of revenge thereafter would never have occurred.
The U.S. military and all of its fancy “experts” and supporters such as David Petraeus, H.R. McMasters, John Nagl, David Kilcullen and Fred Kaplan all failed to comprehend that the rules of engagement were a key to victory (and a primary cause of the defeat). The rules also pointed out a fundamental flaw in the war planning, which is that the goals of liberating Iraq and Afghanistan, while important to White House officials, were (within the Pentagon and State Department) ultimately not worth dying for.
At the U.S. military academy at West Point, a cornerstone of leadership training for officer candidates is to ingrain into them the maxim that they must protect the personnel under their command. That maxim runs counter to COIN where the core principle is to protect the civilian population at all cost. Zero civilian casualties has to be the centerpiece of any successful COIN operation. Without a commitment to that goal (which will help lead to victory), no country should even attempt COIN. Sadly, this precept remains beyond the grasp of American policy-makers.
In conclusion, the United States remains psychologically incapable of successfully waging a large-scale counterinsurgency campaign. In Afghanistan the U.S., out of desperation, has reverted to a counter-terrorism strategy. It is premised on the assumption that increased killings of insurgents and their civilian supporters can win the war. This is an assumption that all reputable experts have rejected because the Taliban have shown that they can replace their losses indefinitely. The targeting of civilian supporters of the Taliban has increased the level of violence and caused unnecessary innocent casualties, which has led to calls for revenge and still more violence. America is doing nothing more than manufacturing a new generation of enemies who may follow U.S. troops home after 2014. Not only is America losing in Afghanistan, but the real war against America may only be beginning.
As with most large, ponderous organizations, the U.S. Government never learns any lessons from its mistakes. What that translates into is that more Americans and Afghans will have to die, all for a failed effort, and all due to the small minds and narrow vision of American policy-makers.
Final Note: The rules of engagement are but one key reason for the U.S. military’s failure. Other reasons which this author has written about include the Pentagon’s flawed notion that COIN can be waged by any fungible soldier or Marine. In fact, troops need to be screened before being assigned as perhaps 75% are not fit for COIN work. Their deployments only made matters worse. Troops should also be deployed as individuals (i.e., the Vietnam rotation scheme) instead of rotating whole units, which is far too disruptive of the local reconstruction and training functions. All personnel need extensive local language skills. Relying on interpreters has been a disastrous policy. The U.S. military needed a viable and professional civilian reconstruction partner, which it never had. The State Department simply assigned bodies for short-term deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan. These personnel usually lacked the engineering and infrastructure skills needed, and had no knowledge of local dialects. They could not function independently in the countryside and therefore rarely contributed anything positive to the war effort. The whole, disorganized Country-Team concept that the U.S. Government utilizes overseas is flawed and needs to be redesigned from the ground up.