Photo: Flickr/The U.S. Army
When I deployed to Afghanistan as an infantry squad leader in 2004, I had the utmost confidence in my superiors, our mission to restore order to Afghanistan, and to help the Afghan people.At the time of my deployment, we had clear rules of engagement (ROE): if you ever feel that your life is threatened, you can respond with force to include deadly force.
Beyond this, we also patrolled our area of operations with the knowledge that if we ever radioed “troops in contact,” our requests for air or artillery support would be approved.
Thankfully, I never had to make that radio call. During my seven-month tour with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines in Khost Province, combat was light. We encountered many more weapons caches than we did enemy attacks. I never once fired my weapon. The hotspot at the time was Iraq. Our war, it seemed, was won.
When I returned and transitioned to a role as an infantry instructor in 2006, my peers—who only had deployed to Iraq—quipped that I was part of the “forgotten war.”
And where are we today?
Six years after hearing those jokes, the war is forgotten by everyone except the men and women who continue to fight it. My mostly quiet wartime memory of 2005 has exploded into a battlefield of heavy combat with the casualties to go along with it.
And yet all the blood, destruction—all the efforts of our military—cannot change the unfortunate and highly probable outcome that our 2014 exit from Afghanistan will be marked as a failure.
I don’t want to believe it, but we are losing this war.
Each day our soldiers and Marines leave the wire, only to face increasing attacks from a determined enemy. An insurgency that continues to enjoy support—even from inside a corrupt government in Kabul as well as Islamabad.
And they don’t just face Taliban AK-47s and improvised explosives. They also continue to face the guns of their supposed allies, Afghan National Army and Police forces, who have killed over 30 U.S. military personnel just this year alone.
As we try to win hearts and minds, the Taliban uses fear—and in a culture of tribalism and tradition, it is fear that works.
Instead of being afraid of the might of U.S. firepower, enemy fighters use our rules of engagement and restrictions on air support against us. When faced with a split-second decision of whether to shoot, soldiers many times must hesitate—or be investigated. Or, as in the case of the 2009 Battle of Ganjgal, excessive restrictions on air and artillery assets unfortunately meant excessive American deaths.
“We are willing to restrict ourselves to the point of helplessness to avoid even a possibility of civilian casualties,” said one military officer who I’ll refer to as Evan, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I have personally watched the same man arm and disarm 12 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) over a week, with no strikes allowed due to collateral concerns.”
The failure of the war does not rest at the hands of the brave troops who patrol every day. It lies with top military leadership and politicians, who have effectively choked our troops so badly that their mission has become impossible.
“I cannot emphasise just how badly the pullout date has ruined our efforts over here,” said Evan. “Down to the lowest soldier, there is a very palpable sense that everything we’ve done is too little, too late.”
As many leaders and politicians continue to plead with a public weary to continue their support for the war, they say, as they said similarly during the war in Vietnam, that “the deaths of our soldiers should not be in vain.”
I disagree. The death of a brother in arms, while tragic and equally heartbreaking, should not be used as a political tool. The fallen heroes of this war are lost forever and will never see a battlefield again. They should not be used to further justify its expansion.
There is an economic theory that supports my reasoning: It’s called a sunk cost dilemma. The theory presents a problem of having to choose between ending an activity immediately or choosing to continue with an uncertain outcome that already involves considerable investment. The investment, whether it be time, money, or in the case of the Afghan war, lives, can never be recovered, and is called a sunk cost.
I believe that we should allow our soldiers to be able to fight this war. As Lt Col. Christian Cabaniss tells his Marines in the documentary Obama’s War, “Make no mistake, we are experts in the application of violence.”
Despite being experts at warfare, the military, much like a professional boxer, will never win a fight when their hands are tied behind their back. Unfortunately, it is our own Generals and politicians that have done the tying.
“We’ve embraced the counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine without remembering to maintain the true power of the US military, which is an unstoppable killing machine,” Evan told me. “Now the buzz words are ‘development’ [and] ‘partnership’. These things brief well, but they must be used hand in hand with a tolerant and permissive ROE that allows us to flex our full potential when we need to.”
As we look forward to 2014 and our strategy of withdrawal that President Obama has announced, I can tell you some of what the future holds. As the example of the sunk cost dilemma states, we are choosing to continue with an uncertain outcome. This is not entirely true.
If we do not allow our military to carry out their mission—to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and manoeuvre, as is the infantry’s goal, and support them with the assets they need, then the next two years will be marked with more American deaths, many more wounded, continued training failure and eventual stall in recruitment of Afghan security forces, and a country left in ruins.
Make no mistake: our enemy is resilient. But they are not impossible to defeat. When our Marines and soldiers were unleashed—with tanks, artillery, air support, and rules of engagement that favoured the U.S. instead of the insurgency during the second Battle of Fallujah in 2004—the fighters soon realised how tough our military was.
“We are fighting, but the Marines keep coming!” said a frantic Fallujah insurgent to other fighters in an intercepted radio communication. “We are shooting, but the Marines won’t stop!”
We need to stop lying to ourselves.
Let our troops do the job that we, united as Americans, know they can do, or withdraw them immediately and save us a predictable and tragic two more years of war.
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