02 September 2009

On Force Protection and Risk Aversion (Part II)

(Part I posted in March of 2009)

In recent news, General Stanley McChrystal has presented a report on the situation in Afghanistan to senior US and NATO leaders. Although the report has not yet been made public (at least not that I can find), many expect that it will request for more troops to augment NATO’s sparse troop levels, and to train local security forces and law enforcement officials.

With that said, a recent article in today’s Los Angeles Times indicates that NATO (and in particular, the US) is looking at boosting its combat power by replacing support troops with “trigger-pullers”—brigade combat teams of Soldiers designed to patrol the countryside on foot.

The American way of war places an emphasis on “force protection”—ensuring that troops are placed on heavily-fortified bases behind layers of barriers, barbed wire, and protective towers. However, in counterinsurgency environments, this sometimes goes to extremes and can actually be quite counterproductive.

Before the Surge of 2007, American troops practiced a “Super-FOB” strategy in Iraq. Troops were consolidated on massive fortified bases far from the outskirts of cities, venturing outside only in armoured columns, which did little besides anger the local population. However, in Tal’Afar, a city in Northern Iraq, American officers tried a new strategy. They established dozens of smaller combat outposts throughout the cities, pushing many of their troops off the Super-FOBs and into close proximity with the local population. It was risky, but it worked. Emphasizing foot patrols rather than armored convoys, the troops cleared the cities of insurgents, held the gains, and began to establish essential services in the cities, ridding them of insurgent presence for good.

Contrast this with the “commute to war” strategy from 2003-2006, where American troops ventured out of the FOBs in convoys, smashed a target or two, then returned to the FOB.

Indeed, it looks as if US and NATO forces are actually trying to “surge” in earnest. In an article written a few months ago, War is Boring reporter Joshua Foust reported that over 90% of troops at Bagram Air Base, one of the largest bases in Afghanistan, had never left the confines of the base.

And who can blame them for never venturing out? A modern Forward Operating Base typically contains Starbucks Coffee (or its knock-off, Green Bean), Burger King, Pizza Hut, and dining facilities with all the ice cream you can eat. You can also burn off everything you eat in any one of a number of gyms, or you can burn off those extra calories with salsa classes.

We want to provide a good quality of life for our troops, there’s no doubt about that, particularly when they’re deployed for a year or more. Indeed, I'd rather troops resort to Nintendo Wii tournaments and rock climbing walls to pass the time than filling their free time with drugs, hookers and alcohol, like some (but certainly not all) of their counterparts did in Vietnam.

But is there a point of diminishing returns? One of the most reputable counterinsurgency theorists, a French officer named Captain David Galula (in part, one of the key figures in the US’ new Counterinsurgency manual. Yes, a French guy. Yeah, like France France…) noted that the counterinsurgent needs to live among the people and like the local population in order to succeed. Not only do these bases make troops a little too cozy, but they also can also cause resentment among the local population--certainly, when the locals see Americans building Burger Kings, they believe that the US is there permanently.

That might mean fewer lattes and ice cream, and more life in austere conditions. But for some troops, like the Marines of E Company (highlighted in this story on Wired’s Danger Room), that might not be so bad:

By any rational measure, the Marines of Echo company should be miserable. During the day, they trudge through the mud until they got shot at and endure temperatures that regularly spike above 110 degrees. At night, they sleep in holes in the dirt, next to mortar tubes. Dinner for the last three evenings has been something brown called “beef burgundy.” With enough hot sauce, you can keep it from tasting too much like cigarettes.

Yet morale here at this converted school compound that serves as Echo company’s headquarters is uncannily high. The things most people would find intolerable – the danger, the Third World living conditions – are exactly what makes Echo company thrive, these troops say. “Marines don’t miss what they don’t get,” Staff Sgt. Timothy Funke tells me.

Since the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military has built a series of titanic bases, where troops can get Pizza Hut delivered, sip an iced mochaccino, surf the web wirelessly or enter salsa dancing competitions. In my limited experience, these places are greenhouses of ennui and existential angst; the comforts of home only make the residents more despondent.

At Echo company’s compound, the only air conditioning is for the computers in the operations center. The shower is a bucket. The toilets consist of a few sandbags and a wooden box, positioned over a hole. And when the Marines here leave the base on patrol, it’s a virtual guarantee that they’ll encounter Taliban trying to kill them. In 57 days here, Echo has received enemy fire on 44 of them. Which, strangely, suits the Marines here just fine.

“Last deployment, I went to Iraq and spent seven months rebuilding stuff that marines destroyed and thought: why can’t that be me?” says 1st Lt. Ben Phillips, a weapons platoon leader serving with Echo company. “Now I’m happy. I get to shoot and blow things up — all the stuff they show you in the commercials.”
Just don't take away my wireless Internet. I got a milblog to maintain in order to keep all of you amused. (Life is hard)


David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/03/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

El Goyito said...

Yeah, looks liek we've got a military full of pampered princesses living on those cozy FOBs (whereas the USAF used to have a monopoly on that haha). It's interesting that living in primitive conditions, according to the article, actually increases morale while living in the comfort of the FOBs ("greenhouses of ennui & existential angst") make the troops more despondent.

But don't forgo good coffee outside the wire. Even sacrifice has its humane limits.

Starbuck said...

What's important to note is that the Marines were only deployed for 6 months as opposed to 12 for the Army. I think the shorter deployments might make them more prone to putting up with the more spartan living conditions.