Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Bad neighborhoods

“Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.” - General William Tecumseh Sherman

There’s something I find amusing in such a blunt and forthright opinion using such powerful and evocative language. But taking his quote as truth, the future for us here in Afghanistan is anything but amusing.

I’ll elaborate. I recently have been moved to a different forward operating base, the purpose being for me to train an Afghan officer holding a specific billet corresponding to my military occupational specialty. It’s a temporary move, and I’ll soon be moved back to where I came from. Being at a very isolated place for the duration of my deployment until now has left my knowledge base concentrated in a very narrow, specific region. My arrival here has given me the chance to find out the changes, patterns, and operations being conducted in this province as a whole. And it’s been educational.

I was recently eating by myself at the chow hall when the Army battalion commander sat down across from me for a chat. He must have seen my Marine Corps uniform, and personally knowing the few marines that inhabit this place, decided he’d get to know the new guy. When the battalion commander found out which little base I’d come from, he stated to me something along the lines of how he hates it that we’re even out in that region, we shouldn’t be there, we should just leave it alone, and get out of there. I’ll mention that the area I normally reside in is known for it’s less than cordial welcome of outsiders, to include their own national army. So as we walked out of the chow hall together, the battalion commander noticed I didn’t have a flashlight and made a comment (seriously I believe) about having a flashlight after dark and how safety comes first. Let’s just say I found that statement and his motherly concern for my welfare to be at odds with what I would expect to hear from an infantry battalion commander in a combat zone.

In talks with another officer from this battalion I learned that we’re closing a particular couple of small bases because “They couldn’t get anything done out there. They were just getting shot at all the time.” I guess all that shooting out there must have gotten in the way of those infantrymen’s collateral duties and so they were moved somewhere more peaceful. In theory, closing bases can be a good idea if you don’t have enough troops to staff them properly so that you can still patrol aggressively and not be tied to the base for want of troops. But I know from experience that once these guys pull out of those regions, they won’t ever patrol there again, rationalizing it by saying to themselves, “We can’t go there enough to make a difference anyway, so why go at all?” I’ve been guilty of that thought process myself actually, albeit in a context that palatably balanced by sense of duty with my sense of self-preservation.

I’m certainly not privy to the details of the planning sessions that are conducted by the brass, but from the point of view of the guy on the ground, it’s clear that the guys calling the shots don’t want to fight the enemy is certain places, namely, the hinterlands. They’d rather just leave him alone, thinking he’ll leave us alone, and instead we’ll all focus on the population centers. And there may be a little bit of truth to the idea that the insurgents will leave us alone if we just don’t go to where they live. I know that some of the people that fight against us out at my little base are just local people that don’t like government in general and especially hate foreign infidels. But I also know that those local people are only some of the fighters, not most. And I also know that you can keep yourself safe for awhile by avoiding a bad neighborhood, but if you ignore it long enough eventually that bad neighborhood will come to visit you. That was the lesson for all Americans on 9/11 and the reason we’re here in the first place.

Anyway, I could go on with the theme and discuss required troop numbers on patrols - the theory being safety in numbers, which obviously trumps the surprise, speed, and stealth advantages of smaller units (sarcasm most definitely intended) - and discuss how this has hamstrung us in the name of safety and caution, but I’ll save those observations for a less public forum.

I understand that General Sherman wasn’t faced with an insurgency. We can’t win this war by burning the province, thereby destroying the insurgents’ supply base and will to fight. Though the tactics we must use need be different from those in the Civil War, I think what we really lack now is leadership with the Shermanesque resolve to put an end to this fight, facing the ugly realities by actively engaging the enemy and destroying him wherever he is, instead of running from him and giving him sanctuaries (Don’t they already have enough of those in Pakistan?) just to temporarily make ourselves safer and more comfortable. The best case result for this strategy is a lengthening of our military’s stay here. Worst case…

The picture is of a helo on approach to Restrepo, before a Chinook got shot down when daytime helo missions were still conducted.

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