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Counterinsurgency and Killing People

6:25 PM, Sep 25, 2009 • By AARON MACLEAN
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Ralph Peters had an ill-considered piece in yesterday's New York Post which seemed to blame American casualties in Afghanistan on 'politically correct' rules of engagement forced on the military by the Obama administration:

In Afghanistan, our leaders are complicit in the death of each soldier, Marine or Navy corpsman who falls because politically correct rules of engagement shield our enemies.

Mission-focused, but morally oblivious, Gen. Stan McChrystal conformed to the Obama Way of War by imposing rules of engagement that could have been concocted by Code Pink:

* Unless our troops in combat are absolutely certain that no civilians are present, they're denied artillery or air support.

* If any civilians appear where we meet the Taliban, our troops are to "break contact" -- to retreat.

These ROE are a cave-in to the Taliban's shameless propaganda campaign that claimed innocents were massacred every time our aircraft appeared overhead.

As far as protecting the troops goes, Peters's heart is in the right place, but the article nonetheless betrays a fairly comprehensive misunderstanding of how counterinsurgencies must be fought if they are to succeed. One can survey these principles in the relevant publications (the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which Peters unaccountably calls "disastrous", is an excellent reference) or just derive them oneself from our experiences in Iraq. The more the military focused on killing the enemy in Iraq, the less success it achieved. As soon as General Petraeus re-oriented Coalition efforts towards securing the population -- and as soon as he received the necessary resources to do so -- the situation improved dramatically.

And here is the curious paradox to counterinsurgency: as soon as the military focused less on "force protection" -- as it is known in the biz -- and more on the protection of indigenous civilians, the rate at which we were taking casualties plummeted. It does not seem logical at first: how can our troops be safer with less armor, smaller bases, and less reliance on firepower? It is certainly the case that initially, things will be harder: hence the spike in casualties which occurred during the Iraqi "surge", and the spike which is occurring now in Afghanistan. But in time the only way to defeat the enemy is to alienate them from the population, and thus gain the intelligence that allows for the discriminate and devastating application of violence, when appropriate. If you just kill everything that moves, the one who ends up alienated from the population is the counterinsurgent, with predictably negative consequences. (See: Soviet Union, Afghanistan, 1979-1989.)

There is a danger on Peters's part of stoking a populist resentment against best military practices, which have not been derived from left-wing squeamishness but instead from bloody lessons learned on the battlefield. He snidely dismisses the "'Washington player' generals" approach to battling terrorism as one in which troops are to hand out "soccer balls to worm-eaten children." The most generous response one can make to this assertion is that perhaps Peters feels that the whole "counterinsurgency" response to terrorism based in Central Asia is misguided. If so, then that is a subject for another time. But assuming that our effort in Afghanistan is one worth succeeding at, then this notion that counterinsurgency means being nice to people -- i.e., handing out soccer balls -- is completely wrongheaded. Instead, counterinsurgency is a difficult and brutal business of convincing the local population that the monopoly on violence belongs to you, the counterinsurgent, and you alone, that only you can protect them, and that it is in their interest to identify the insurgents to you. Then, based on that intelligence, the counterinsurgent kills. In situations where killing one or two insurgents risks civilian casualties or -- frankly, more importantly -- the perception of civilian casualties, then it is often in the counterinsurgent's interest to hold fire and break contact, and bide time for a better situation. This remains true even when friendly troops are at risk.