28 March 2009

On Force Protection and Risk Aversion

David Axe at War is Boring has linked to an excellent story in Reuters which, once again, talks about the long-term dangers of "force protection". We've discussed the dangers of this mentality again and again, and it even serves as one of Dr. John Nagl's undeniable truths of counter-insurgency, ("The more you protect your forces, the less secure you may be"), but it's worth examining again with hard statistics from Afghanistan.

Josh Faust, a contractor returning from Afghanistan says:

It is a cliché that, in counterinsurgency, one must be among “the people”. In Iraq, the U.S. Army did this to great effect under the leadership of General David Petraeus, moving large numbers of soldiers off the enormous bases and into smaller, community-oriented security outposts. As a result, in densely populated urban areas like Baghdad, an active presence of troops played a significant role in calming the worst of the violence. The Western Coalition forces in Afghanistan, however, face an altogether different problem. Kabul is not Baghdad - far less of Afghanistan’s population lives there than in Iraq, and the insurgency is concentrated outside the country’s largest urban areas. In many urban areas-Herat in the west, Jalalabad in the east, Mazar-i Sharif in the north-a westerner is far safer in the city itself than out in the countryside

The many smaller bases strung in between are surrounded by enormous Hesco barriers, concertina wire, and guard towers. No one is allowed on the base without being badged and interviewed by base security, and in many places delivery trucks are forced to wait in the open for 24 hours before completing their trips to the dining halls, clinics, or technology offices.

There are other ways in which Coalition Forces are separated from the people of Afghanistan beyond their heavily fortified bases. Most transit - on patrol, on delivery runs, or on humanitarian missions - is performed through Mine Resistance Ambush Protection, or MRAP vehicles. These enormous trucks, thickly plated with metal blast shields on the bottom with tiny blue-tinted ballistic glass, make it near-impossible to even see the surrounding countryside from another other than the front seat.

On the narrow mountain roads that sometimes collapse under the mutli-ton trucks, soldiers drive, too, in up-armored Humvees, which are similarly coated in thick plates of armor and heavy glass windows they aren’t allowed to open.

When soldiers emerge from their imposing vehicles, they are covered from head to groin in various forms of shielding: thick ceramic plates on the torso, the ubiquitous Kevlar helmets, tinted ballistic eye glasses, neck and nape guards, heavy shrapnel-resistant flaps of fabric about the shoulders and groin, and fire-resistant uniforms. A common sentiment among Afghans who see these men and women wandering in their midst is that they look like aliens, or, if they know of them, robots...

...These are the sorts of questions that cannot be answered while holed up on a large base. Military bases are societies in miniature: they have their own politics, their own players, a separate culture, and even their own language. When focused on themselves, they develop into a so-called “garrison mentality” - a focus on rules, administration, and process, rather than accomplishing any larger strategic objectives [ed. note, isn't that the truth?].

...The end result is stark: in a war that is desperately short of the troops needed to provide security to increasingly less remote communities, 93% of the soldiers stationed at the Coalition’s primary base never walk outside the gates. Instead of a focus on separating the insurgents from the population - another clichéd pillar of counterinsurgency - the focus seems instead to be simply killing as many of the enemy as can be identified.

The article brings up a recent discussion which was also held on Small Wars Journal's discussion board, which talked about the curse of Force Protection, and blames the risk-averse culture in the military for the mentality. A number of commanders had chimed in, stating that whenever a Soldier is killed in action, an investigation is launched to determine any fault in his death. If the Soldier wasn't wearing the side plates in his body armour because it made him more cumbersome, well, that's the commander's fault. If a Soldier was patrolling in an area where someone knew there were hostiles, well, it's the commander's fault for putting him in harm's way.

Now, we all recognize that, ultimately, commanders are responsible for everything that goes on in the unit, and we all recognize that no commander wants to write home to families that a Soldier died, but, unfortunately, that's war. But I think that the pressure to not operate under such close scrutiny and micromanagement, and to have all decisions second-guessed by the threat of an investigation if a Soldier loses his or her life, has been detrimental to operations. As one battalion commander states, no one gets investigated for losing a villiage in Afghanistan, but you will if you lose a Soldier attempting to re-take that villiage in Afghanistan.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi - great blog!

You've prob already seen this, but just in case:

"Bill's excellent adventure" on training Iraqi rotary wing pilots