The war in Afghanistan has taken a bizarre turn. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, under foreign pressure to clean up corruption in his government, has apparently warned that he might just side with the Taliban instead. Meanwhile, down south major NATO combat operations continue to target Taliban strongholds. In the east, stretched-thin NATO troops struggle to build grassroots governance and security without much support from Karzai’s regime. Zach Rosenberg, War Is Boring’s youngest correspondent, heads into this morass to observe U.S. counter-insurgency operations up-close.
by ZACH ROSENBERG
On a calm April night at Combat Outpost Baraki Barak, a survivor is recalling the bomb that nearly killed him a couple of days before. He was in his MRAP when a command-wire IED blew it up; he pulled people out of the burning truck, got them onto litters, and picked up his weapon, ready to kill, but as in many of these attacks there was no clear target to shoot. The seriously wounded were airlifted and the surrounding Afghan population yielded no intelligence; the unit circled their remaining trucks and watched the stricken truck burn. He was sent to the hospital for a nasty cut on his head, only six stitches wide but down to the bone.
At the hospital he looked in on one of the troops he pulled out, a 19 year old on his first deployment. “I’m not gonna lie,” he says self-effacingly, “I acted a bitch and started crying. I meant to go in there and console him but I think I only freaked him out more.” The 19-year old was sent to Walter Reed, and the soldier was kept under observation a few days. When his truck dropped the ramp at COP Baraki Barak, he bolted out and immediately threw up. “That’s PTSD for ya,” he jokes. All he wants now, he says, is to go home safely and take his first legal drink in the U.S. At 21, the soldier has earned a Purple Heart and a Medal of Valor recommendation.
When asked why he is ordered to take such risks, the wounded soldier responds immediately. “To tell you the truth, I don’t fucking know.” He’s understandably rattled by his recent experience, but he is not alone in his sentiments. In no way did I conduct a comprehensive survey at COP Baraki Barak, but anecdotally his questioning is widely shared.
The now infamous Rolling Stone article generated an instant firestorm surrounding the comments of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan. But as Blake Hounshell notes at Foreign Policy, many people miss a notable part of the article: nine years in, the grunts at the bottom are losing faith in their leadership.
At COP Baraki Barak, raising the subject of COIN and the inevitable risk it brings to soldiers brings shrugs and reminders of the deep commitment soldiers have to obeying orders, no matter how stupid — on the record. Off the record, when the soldiers speculate freely on their superiors attributes, many are brutal: they’ve forgotten their
roots, they’ve sold their souls for political expediency, they misinterpret the situation, they aren’t paying attention, their hearing is selective, they are Olympic-level idiots.
Not to say the soldiers would prefer to carpet-bomb and massacre their way through any situation, but they are nervous, heavily armed, and increasingly frustrated at what they see as high-risk, low-payoff missions. They are skeptical that holding fire will reap greater safety in the long run. One soldier tells a story about watching Afghans dig, night after night, on a stretch of road visible from an American observation post. Each night the same thing happens: when soldiers are sent to check it out, the men run; sure enough, the next day an IED blows up in that spot. A few days later, the men are back digging. Instead of shooting them from the safety of their outpost, the soldiers send out MRAPs to intercept them, and again the men run. The cycle repeats.
The choice under COIN, as the next shift at the ECP tells me, is binary. Option 1 is to leave, “like the Russians,” presumably suffering the shame of defeat. Option 2 is to “stay an entire generation, until every fucking person that has this mentality dies.”
Of the officers who spoke on the topic with me, all expressed a clear vision of how to practice COIN in their area of responsibility. Of the enlisted who spoke with me, few demonstrated a clear understanding of COIN — their concerns are different, they don’t have to put much thought into strategy. I once heard someone suggest that the fate of the Afghan war be literally decided by enlisted vote, which would clearly be a terrible idea. But they are the first to receive the feedback of strategic mistakes, and sometimes a worm’s eye view is more accurate than an eagle’s.