When Force Protection Isn’t

by Joshua Foust on 3/4/2009 · 6 comments

CJMewett has said all I could think about saying about this incident in Logar:

The story reads as a virtual counterfactual to the effective implementation of counterinsurgency tactics, Duffer’s Drift and Jisr al-Dorea’a rolled into one:

U.S. officials said some were afraid to publicly side with the Americans

…as the populace was not being sufficiently protected to feel secure from recriminations by Taliban insurgents.

Daytime visits to villages required advance security planning and transport in monster vehicles armored against roadside bombs and rockets, hampering the troops’ ability to make personal contact quickly.

…because force protection has — counterproductively — taken precedence over COIN best practices, the development of relationships with locals, and the abandoning of vehicles which are frankly almost useless for the Afghan mission.

I’ve run into this constantly in Kapisa. Guys speed through villages in their MRAPS and up-armored HMMWVs, and wonder why some kids throw rocks at them. Conversely, they stay in their trucks and then wonder why they have a hard time dealing with pissy locals. I should add that a lot of guys get it, but they’d also rather not have to face IEDs without an MRAP in the way. Which is understandable.

Only… it’s tough for a civilian to tell these guys they need to take more risks. It’s one thing to wander around a low-incident area without body armor and feel smugly superior to the SECFOR in full kit (some of the advisors do that), but it’s another to be responsible for the men, sometimes teenagers, under your command. I’ve never worn a uniform, so while I can talk in the abstract about how too much force protection makes us all worse off in the long run (a classic COIN concept, by the way), I not only cannot really say that to any of the guys in charge, I cannot imagine saying to guys I was in charge of.

This shouldn’t be a meditation on what command is like, especially since I’ve never been in it. But as much as I talk about this kind of thing, I am deeply sympathetic toward the unwillingness to make that call without higher command support. But that’s where the drive should be coming from anyway—they shouldn’t lay that on the 1LTs trying to bring their guys home in one piece. The paradox is, less emphasis on force protection will enable a more effective counterinsurgency… but it will also get more Americans killed in the short run. Making that call, however, is another matter entirely.

FURTHER READING: “Fixing Afghanistan Starts With Fixing Ourselves.”

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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David Krump March 6, 2009 at 2:04 pm

In summary, getting out and engaging the locals, face to face, but without protection = good thing, while risking the lives of our soldiers. Staying protected beind armor, mimimizing the risk of death from IED = bad thing, if not downright impolite.

What is your solution? Should we park all our armored vehicles, take of the body armor, and have our troops walk the beat armed with candy and cuddly stuffed animals?

“Only… it’s tough for a civilian to tell these guys they need to take more risks. ” Yes it is, so don’t. The point of your editorial escapes me and says nothing that has’t been said before, while offering no solutions.

Joshua Foust March 6, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Oh yawn. My colleagues and I (though they far more than I, since I’ve barely been here) walk around incredibly dangerous areas without body armor or helmets on. Our job IS to engage the locals–remember that counterinsurgency thing?–and you don’t do that whilst hermetically sealed inside an MRAP.

The point here is, by alienating the population — and by dressing like robots and running people off the road on convoys we do that — we make things worse off. Every single time someone goes out on patrol and pisses off the locals in the name of “force protection,” they make it MORE, not less likely that there will be an attack there eventually.

Conversely, if we — yes — take risks by foregoing some of our protection, we create the conditions under which the conflict comes to an end. As this call was made in Iraq, more Americans died in the short run… and created the situation in which now very few Americans die, certainly far fewer than the force protection-obsessed days of 2006.

No similar transition has happened in Afghanistan. Something as simple as taking off the sunglasses and saying hello to people as you walk past would do tremendous good. As it is right now, people are acting more and more hostile because they think WE are the ones being hostile, not the other way around. It is a very simple mindset not to have.

Chris Mewett March 6, 2009 at 4:10 pm

I don’t wear the uniform and I’ve never faced hostile fire (or IEDs, or much more than harsh words), so it’s with no small amount of trepidation that I say this (the concurrence of men who have dealt with those challenges is what allows me to), but: the military’s first priority is the mission, not force protection.

Vincent Desportes has excellent commentary on the balance between the commander’s subordination to the political process and the imperative to make reasonable accomodation for the safety of his charges and thus maintain their loyalty. This is something for the military professional to consider, and it’s an inescapable part of his job. (Miscalculation of this balance is what leads to things like the Powell Doctrine and a “we don’t do windows” approach from the services.)

The “solution,” as it were, is to find the right balance between force protection and mission accomplishment. Of course we don’t know what that is, but people who aren’t even trying to answer the question are just absolutely killing the mission. It’s the sort of thinking that leads to counterproductive tactics, holing up on FOBs, and just waiting for the clock to run out on a deployment. It’s a big part of the reason we spent five years losing in Iraq. So the answer, simplistic as it sounds, is to get out there and DO COUNTERINSURGENCY.

Dan March 6, 2009 at 4:15 pm

I disagree with David’s assessment that the difficulty of reconciling the tradeoff in Josh’s analysis makes its discussion not worthy of discussion. I believe that the ultimate discussion point is that because of the dilemma between short term and long term problems inherent in the types of operations at hand, we need to determine under what conditions we engage in nation and state-building missions in the first place. The record of imposed institutions is imperfect at best and governments that engage in such policies should be prepared to count the costs.

At the same time, I believe Josh’s response gives an incomplete assessment of what led to the decrease in violence in the Iraqi case. Yes, it is true that the change in troop deployments helped to lower intergroup animosity between the U.S. and many Iraqis. However, the military also began buying off insurgent leaders with weapons, cash, and make-work positions in the government. Is this truly a sustainable policy in the long run? Not likely-and it does nothing for political reconciliation among the myriad interests in that country. Repeating this policy to any extent in Afghanistan will likely lead to the same, uneasy and unsustainable equilibrium.

Joshua Foust March 6, 2009 at 10:25 pm

Dan, my example was meant to be illustratory and limited to this one idea. You know as well as I do that simply walking around is not enough to win an insurgency.

Vengeance 7 March 7, 2009 at 8:49 am

Mr Foust, you are correct but I believe this needs to be fleshed out a bit.

I’m new to this site but I find It fascinating that I found exactly what I was looking for in the only 2 articles I’ve read here.

We are loosing because of the 15-6 burden and the “stay safe at all costs” BS atitudes that I am constantly fighting, day to day, trying to accomplish my mission here. If you sit in your F.O.B, you allow the bad guys freedom of movement in you AO. With this freedom of movement, bad guys as bad guys do, will emplace ieds, set complex ambushes, fire rockets and generally run amuck. Now, when you roll out in your vehicles on your weekly patrol/show of force, you get blown up.

what is the answer. FIGHT! Fight the war. This is counter insurgency, it requires dirty dangerous work. You have to get on the ground, on foot, and patrol. No need to explain the diferent types of combat patrol, but they are foot patrols and need to take place NOW!

We lumber around in our cougars (tanks with out mainguns more like it), we can be seen for miles across a valley floor.If we do move on something, we give the bad guys the choice to fade away or fight. We are allowing the enemy to dictate to us, we need to get light, take the initiative and make the enemy react to us: we dictate to them.

Yes, you will take casualties but our tactics (no tactics really) allow the enemy to kill us as a force by the persistant, 8yr slow bleed. The moral imperative has never been to keep your men alive by sitting out the fight in hope against hope that the bad guys won’t get you today; The moral imperative has always been, train, equip and lead well into a battle against your foe that you have set as to allow you advantages and exploit his weaknesses.

As we well know the tenants of COIN require face to face, constant, intimate comtact. I won’t delve into that here but it goes hand in hand with boots, not huge armore vehicle tire, on the ground.

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