Wednesday, February 25, 2009


We get a new group of soldiers out here every once in awhile, which has its pluses and minuses. Sometimes the new guys aren’t very familiar with the area so we have to teach them a lot about our area of operations, but on the other hand new people often provide a new way of looking at things so we often get some new ideas on how to run things around here. And their ignorance often means we can get them to do things that other more experienced groups won’t be as willing to do because they are so set in their ways, meaning we can often get things done more along the lines of how we’d like them done.

I am a big believer in incentives, and not just in this context. How I deal with the new guys often depends on how much they’re willing to contribute to their own well-being. The more I see the Afghans work, the more willing I am to help them. The latest crop of soldiers came into the base and refused to put their gear in their rooms until they cleaned them…something I can’t blame them for because the rooms were certainly filthy. I took this as a good sign, and thus the purse strings were loosened from the outset with this group and their commander. The commander wants his soldiers to exercise so they’re not sitting around smoking cigarettes and doing nothing during the day…and so we built them a pull-up bar and are going to try to get some weights out here. The Afghans generally ask me for all sorts of things ranging from things they need, like money for food when we occasionally run out, to things they don’t need, like televisions. If it’s a non-essential item, I don’t provide it. If it’s essential, I provide it, but usually only after making them try to use their own ingenuity (and supply system) to solve the problem. Since this platoon has demonstrated itself to be well-disciplined I do things for them I never did for our prior units.

On the subject of incentives…the Army out here has created a bit of an adverse incentive system. Their policy is: if shooting originates from an individual’s house and we thus destroy it in self defense with bombs, RPGs or whatever, then we will pay for the house as long as the Army commander deems the use of that particular house as a firing position to be uncommon. If, however, the house is routinely used as place from which to shoot at us, then no recompense will be forthcoming. Now I understand that winning over the population is the goal in counter-insurgency, but winning the “hearts and minds” of the populace doesn’t mean you always have to be mister nice guy – we just need to persuade them supporting us is in their best interests and that resisting us is pointless. With the policy we currently have in place, we not only don’t provide the local people with any incentive to keep the insurgents out of their homes (something that would ‘enhance’ the security of our patrols), but we also psychologically influence the populace to see us as the bad guys every time one of these events occurs. It is true that maybe the owner of the home was blameless in that he was out of town or couldn’t keep the bad guys out of his home for fear for his life, and the situation is unfortunate for him, but looking at the greater picture as long as we make our position clear that any house used as a firing position is subject to destruction should the need arise during a gunfight, then the responsibility for the damages really goes to the guys that use those homes as ambush positions. Of course, we should always take care to minimize collateral damage and protect non-combatants, and therefore we should avoid taking down a house unless absolutely necessary and we’re reasonably sure the bad guys are still inside.

Temperance in the use of such destructive ordnance combined with an inflexible policy toward recompense, might influence the local people to see the insurgents for what they are – the cause of the trouble around here, which would be a monumental step forward. Our irresolution, leaving payment for damages up to a judgment call on the part of one man, influences the people to blame us for the damage to their home. If a person believes that a faint hope exists that they may get recompense for damage to their home, then of course they are going to come to us to ask for money. And by coming to us for damages, psychologically the owner of the home now sees us as the cause of his difficulties. Whether we pay or don’t pay, we’re now the bad guy that destroyed his home. If our policy is simply: if a home used as an ambush position is destroyed no payment for damages will be forthcoming, then no ambiguity exists and the owner can blame the insurgents for acting in a way that would bring our predictable response, unfortunate though it is for the owner himself.

In the end, the Army’s policy is merely an extension of 21st century American society’s attempts to separate actions from the consequences that naturally flow from them. In so doing, we often take the easy way out today in the name of being nice and understanding, at the expense of the larger issues and the future, and of course creating adverse incentives which serve to encourage the irresponsible behavior we should be doing everything possible to prevent.

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