Originally published in The Washington Times but their editors are scared of narratives they haven't crafted so you'll have to visit the Wayback Machinel
DALLAS, March 14th, 2012 – In southern Afghanistan, an Army Staff Sergeant on his fourth deployment left his base in the middle of the night and executed 16 Afghan civilians while they slept.
As the media analyzes the story and politicians apologize, the military community is reeling. To make sense of the situation, veterans, concerned citizens and active military personnel sought community online. Nearly everyone agrees the soldier is primarily responsible for his actions, but across social networks – peppered between rants, condolences, and questions – many combat veterans are also laying blame at Washington’s feet.
Most understand the war is won by “hearts and minds” and are grieved, angered and disappointed by the incident. They are quick to remind onlookers that the shooter doesn’t reflect the Army mentality. “He should’ve thought of the team and not his own sick path of revenge,” posted Mike Matthews on a U.S. Infantryman Facebook page. “This was one man acting alone. We are better than this and we are not homicidal maniacs. I hope he gets the death penalty.”
Many agreed with Matthews, pointing out that this lone shooter blackens the efforts of the 90,000 troops and Marines still in-country, many of which are building successful relationships with the Afghans. This angers civilians, too, particularly those who have a loved-one deployed and fear violent retribution.
Though the motive of the US soldier is unknown at this time, Afghanistan veterans charge that the rules of engagement established by the military, a sliding agenda from invasion to nation-building, and continuous Afghan partner betrayals creates conditions detrimental to the mission and the soldier’s mental health.
These flaws in the rules of warfare, they say, are the fault of leadership, and if not changed, are likely to breed more anger, resent and possibly, future outbreaks of violence.
Rules of Engagement
Consider the perspective of the deployed soldier in Afghanistan. Rules of engagement define every interaction with the enemy. They are determined by top military officials and all soldiers must abide by them with strict adherence, whether they are logical, practical or could result in American casualties and mission failure.
A year ago, the Washington Examiner painted a picture of how these extremely strict rules of engagement defeat the war effort and the soldier, “Several Taliban detainees who had been captured in February after being observed placing bombs in the culverts of roads used by civilians and military convoys near Kandahar were fed, given medical treatment, and then released by American troops.
[American troops] frustrated by a policy say it is forcing them to kick loose enemies who are trying to kill them. Despite what American soldiers say was a mountain of evidence, which included a video of the men planting the bomb and chemical traces found on their hands, there was nothing the soldiers who had captured them could do but feed and care for them for 96 hours and then set them free.”
Many believe the rules of engagement are the primary reason the war against the Taliban is ongoing as well as a contributing factor to feelings of anger, helplessness, frustration, failure and rage many deployed soldier’s experience.
An active-duty Army aviator preparing for his third deployment elaborated on this example, “War is an absolute. An armed combatant equals shooting. The soldier’s job is to break the enemy, to kill or to capture or be killed and captured. You don’t ask a man to go to war part-time, and that’s what we’re doing,” he says. “When you prohibit a soldier from acting in accordance with training, common sense and the goal of defeating his enemy, this breeds unfathomable stress. Couple that with asking these men to die for this war, but then feeding, clothing and releasing their enemy because irrational rules demand it; that’s the height of insult.”
A five-tour combat veteran of the Gulf War and Iraq explained that the rules of engagement are unlike any other theatre of combat. “These are rules for police officers, not soldiers. Imagine if we’d fought WWI, WWII or Vietnam this way! We’d have lost in a month. The problem begins with the top brass. They’ve created these conditions that hamper the soldier.”
When pressed further as to his theory on why the military continues these rules, “The rules of engagement are counterproductive to successful warfare against the Taliban. So why hinder our forces? They justify this ridiculous ROE as “civilian casualty prevention”, but that has always been doctrine. They created this restrictive ROE because we’re not in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban. We’re biding our time so defense contractors can continue funneling tax dollars to their projects at record profits. Our soldiers aren’t eradicating the Taliban; they’re policing a hostile nation until the last bit can be extracted. That’s the only explanation I have.”
Most veterans do not doubt Washington’s commitment to helping Afghanistan stand on its own. In fact, this commitment is where some of their frustration lies.
Nation Building: A Sliding Agenda
Soldiers and Marines believe that a perpetual “sliding agenda” from the successful hunt for Bin Laden and unsuccessful eradication of the Taliban to occupation-style nation-building contributes to frustrations. Besides clinging to the hope their presence in Afghanistan keeps Islamic fundamentalists away from American shores, most see the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden as the last reason to remain. They feel they’ve done what they can do by giving the Afghan citizens 10 years of infrastructure, training and preparation to resist succumbing to the Taliban. Most do not want to risk any more lives, treasure or resources building a nation they feel will not survive American withdrawal.
“It’s time to let the Afghans take over and defend themselves against the Taliban if that’s what they want. We’ve been training them for 10 years, if they can’t do it now, they never will; but to continue nation-building? Outrageous waste of resources when those dollars and soldiers are needed back home,” says a former Marine who returned from the theatre in June of 2011.
Peter, a Former Marine who started a thread discussing the situation on a Marine Corps fan page, also had thoughts on our nation-building endeavor, “I’ve been there three times and Iraq once. Iraq was modern compared to Afghanistan. These people don’t understand rights, they don’t understand a unified state of “Afghanistan”, and they aren’t capable of self-government. We are trying to force “democracy” on a state that doesn’t want it, wasting American lives, billions of dollars and our world reputation in the process.
You don’t ask a man to leave his family and his country to fight a war unless it’s absolutely necessary, but we do. If you think that doesn’t breed rage, you don’t know us very well. I’m angry and so are the men still on the ground. All of this frustration eats us alive. This is what we think about every night and every day.”
He argues that many soldier’s become consumed by the complexities of this nation-building and Taliban-defeating endeavor, only to determine it is futile, wasteful and purposeless. This triggers further feelings of dishonor, self-hatred, and eventually depression which can contribute to suicide or acts of violence. “We’re trained to protect our team, to defend America and to win battles. That’s not what we’re doing. They want us to build this corrupt, backward country into a functional entity for the next two years. Not possible. We’re risking our lives for them and they hate us.”
A Marine Corps Vietnam veteran and former consultant for a defense contractor in Iraq added to that view, stating that mismanagement is losing the war against the Taliban and in the process, hurting our soldiers. “Think of this man that went on this spree. We don’t know anything about him, but we do know he snapped, killed women and children and then turned himself in. That is a father, a husband, and a tenured American veteran. We’re not monsters, we’re people and to systematically kill that way shows he no longer distinguished between civilian and combatant, that he no longer valued life. This is what we’re doing to our men, and for what?”
He also says American civilians must understand that these men are angry that their comrades have been dying to bring these people “peace” and “stability” they don’t feel is achievable, just like Vietnam.
Another situation many believe contributes to violence between Afghans and Americans is the lack of trust between both parties due to consistent betrayals. Recently, in three separate incidents, allies, most from the Afghan National Army (ANA), allegedly murdered six Americans after U.S. troops accidentally burned copies of the Koran. The true numbers are classified, but roughly 70 American troops have been killed by Afghan Security Forces since 2007.
U.S. soldiers told reporters just one week ago that the number of incidents was underreported as non-fatal incidents are not logged. “We’re being murdered by the same people we’re told to live near, work with, train and trust. Our nation clothes them, feeds them, provides them with shelter, and we’re rewarded by bullets in the backs of heads,” said a retired Marine that served as a trainer for the ANA forces in Afghanistan. “After so much hostility, betrayal and distrust, asking American soldiers to continue living, working, and training them when retribution has been promised will cancel out our successes.”
Active-duty soldiers speaking anonymously blame the administration and military leaders for their incompetence and illogical expectations that show that winning the war is not truly the objective. They reference common sense resolutions to these problems: namely not allowing Afghan workers in such close proximity to Americans. “The conquered don’t want us here, we don’t want to be here, America is broke and until we’re out, this isn’t going to stop. Most of us hate them and they hate us, and anyone that says otherwise hasn’t been beyond the wire. Trust is gone.”
Matthew Merrill, a retired Army officer had the following to say about the continued war and its toll on the mission and the soldier, “Our men can handle combat. Some of us have been to these places five or six times. It’s the lack of a successful end state that’s driving us crazy.”
He takes the trend of betrayals a step further, proposing this recent incident in Afghanistan may have been a form of “blowback” or retaliation for American soldier’s deaths. The phrase is attributed to political and military strategists, but was popularized in conjunction with Retired General Stanley McChrystal’s “math formula” for winning hearts and minds. The idea states that for every innocent killed, ten “terrorists”, or insurgents are created.
If McChrystal Math does not just apply to Afghans and Iraqis, perhaps “blowback” is a human condition, and therefore two-sided. For American soldiers, when one of their brothers is murdered, is it possible that 10 potential rogue soldiers are created? If that is the case, is the violence a circle fueled by mutual hatred for America’s continued presence in the nation? And, if so, is nation-building in Afghanistan worth the expense of American blood and treasure?
The incident that occurred on Sunday is rare and beyond tragic. The murder of innocents blackens the name of the United States, makes it difficult for allies to defend our actions, and damages future cooperation. However, as new details emerge, instead of focusing intently on the mental-state of this particular soldier, the military community is hoping the media and American citizenry focus on the causes that could have contributed to this soldier’s heinous actions, not just the effect of his rage.
Many also believe that after condolences are given to the innocent victims, Washington should apologize to the American soldier in Afghanistan for keeping our troops operating within irrational and illogical measures counterproductive to defeating the Taliban, and as many of them feel, setting them up for failure.
Lastly, in light of this incident, perhaps now it’s time we, and Washington, listen to our military and take this opportunity to justify our “2014-2024 timeline”. The United States entered Afghanistan in 2001 first to catch Bin Laden, then defeat the Taliban, and now nation-build. At the moment this article was written, we the people have allowed our politicians to expend $509,396,055,806 dollars for this effort. We’ve buried 1823 of our countrymen and brought home 15,322 of our wounded in the process.
The year is 2012 and Bin Laden is dead. The Taliban are a religious faction that cannot be completely and wholly eradicated. The nation-building experiment cannot continue; America can’t afford it, our people don’t want it, the defense contractors have made enough money, and clearly the Afghan’s aren’t ready for democracy.
Perhaps it is time we accept that there will be no Cronkite moment for this conflict. Perhaps it’s time to care about the hearts and minds of our own soldiers over distant Afghan tribes.