12 April 2010

On the Afghan Convoy

Most of you have heard about an incident in Afghanistan where American troops mistakenly shot a bus which contained civilians. One of my trusted friends in Afghanistan contacted me after the incident, and, not violating security procedures, noted that the American patrol had signaled for the vehicle to stop several times before firing at it.

While the deaths of civilians is certainly a tragedy, the US military's public relations people have been a little more quick to mitigate the PR effects than they were with last week's Apache video. The more credible military reporters, namely Spencer Ackerman and Nathan Hodge, have reported on to the "fog of war" surrounding the shooting.

Ackerman quotes the official ISAF press release in the Washington Independent:
Before dawn this morning, an unknown, large vehicle approached a slow-moving ISAF route-clearance patrol from the rear at a high rate of speed. The convoy could not move to the side of the road to allow the vehicle to pass due to the steep embankment.

The ISAF patrol warned off the approaching vehicle once with a flashlight and three times with flares, which were not heeded. Perceiving a threat when the vehicle approached once more at an increased rate of speed, the patrol attempted to warn off the vehicle with hand signals prior to firing upon it. Once engaged, the vehicle then stopped.

Upon inspection, ISAF forces discovered the vehicle to be a passenger bus.

I should also mention that the times around sunrise and sunset are usually the worst in terms of visibility--it's too bright for night-vision goggles, yet too dark for normal eyesight. This would have certainly contributed to US forces misidentifying the vehicle. (So would a propensity for insurgents to use car bombs against military vehicles) It might also explain why the vehicle did not stop right away.

Ackerman notes that the American troops rendered medical aid to the injured civilians, with over a dozen being rushed to hospitals. Nevertheless, the scene bears a chilling resemblance to a side note directly out of General McChrystal's counterinsurgency guidance.
An ISAF patrol was traveling through a city at a high rate of speed, driving down the center to force traffic off the road. Several pedestrians and other vehicles were pushed out of the way. A vehicle approached from the side into the traffic circle. The gunner fired a pen flare at it, which entered the vehicle and caught the interior on fire. As the ISAF patrol sped away, Afghans crowded around the car. How many insurgents did the patrol make that day?
Of course, it's easy for us to sit back and call this a textbook counterinsurgency failure. However, the troops involved would have perceived this as a life-or-death matter. Nevertheless, the incident still sparked protests throughout Kandahar, just as ISAF is preparing its upcoming offensive into the area.

How can we do better?


TTC said...

One unfortunate consequence of LTG McChrystal's emphasis on ending these civilian killings is the additional focus by the media and the blogosphere on each and every incident.

These incidents were much more common just a year or two ago in Afghanistan (and Iraq) and did not get the press coverage or scrutiny then. While I am certainly happy that we're reducing these killings, drawing all this attention to each and every incident can be counterproductive in the population-centric COIN fight.

Murphy's Mom said...

Thank you for your insights. You help me understand things about the war and the military that I can not get from general news media.
Keep it up.

Paul said...

Sorry I’m a little late on this, but my understanding of this kind of situation is that the rear turret gunner has very little time to make a decision if a vehicle is closing fast — I’ve read as little as 4 to six seconds. Does the ISAF actually expect us to believe that the TG grabbed his flashlight and signaled, stowed his flashlight, picked up a pen flare and shot it off, picked up another pen flare and shot it off, then picked up a third pen flare and shot it off before he lit them up with his MG? Either this guy has to have the fastest hands in the world or someone “embellished” the account a little.

Starbuck said...

I'll ask around on that one, as it's a good question.

I think I read that the vehicle was closing from the rear of the convoy, so that might have given the gunner more time to act, as the bus wouldn't have been closing that quickly. Again, not 100% sure on that one.