Attrition: Friendly Fire From Washington

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December 19, 2013: American veterans of combat in Afghanistan and many of their commanders are now openly criticizing the restrictive ROE (rules of engagement) imposed on U.S. troops after 2009 to limit civilian casualties. The Taliban frequently used civilians as human shields, often killing any who refused to cooperate. Afghanistan politicians and media, some in the pay of the drug gangs or Taliban, jumped all over this, even though most civilian deaths in Afghanistan have always been a direct result of Taliban terror. Not surprisingly most Afghans who were at risk of Taliban violence were enthusiastic about killing Taliban as often as possible, especially Taliban who spent a lot of time tormenting civilians. These Afghans and many American troops were not happy with the new ROE that often meant no air or artillery support, even when American troops were under fire. This led to some high profile incidents of American troops getting killed because of the ROE.

But the new ROE did not appear to have a major impact on U.S. casualties. Consider the combat death rates, which are usually expressed (by military analysts) as troops killed per year per 100,000 in the area. Thus in 2004 there were 16,000 troops in Afghanistan and 325 dead per 100,000 that year. In 2005 it was 18,000/550 dead, 2006-20,000/490, 2007-26,000/450, 2008-31,000/500, 2009-65,000/488, 2010-85,000/587, 2011-95,000/440, 2012-75,000/413, 2013-60,000/200. Thus there was only one year where the combat death rate went up to a rate similar to Iraq (2010), which was the first full year the new ROE were in effect. There were other factors to consider, like how frequently the troops were out patrolling and raiding, the progress of neutralizing roadside bombs (which became less of a problem over the years) and how active and effective the Afghan security forces were. Other factors included the spread of cell phone service into areas where most of the Taliban violence and drug gang operations were. This hurt the Taliban in a big way.

The new ROE was implemented crudely at first, with a lot of officers with little or no combat experience involved. This is where the most outrageous incidents come from, in which troops clearly in danger were denied fire support, or had it delayed to the point were lots of U.S. and Afghan troops were getting hurt. This, according to the new ROE, was not supposed to happen. Troops were always supposed to get firepower support if American lives were in great danger. The failure of the new ROE to work properly initially caused a lot of commotion among senior commanders, their staffs and people back in Washington. Eventually compromises were quietly (and often unofficially) worked out, sometimes in spite of directives from the politicians, the Pentagon and the State Department. The restrictions were loosened up, the troops adjusted their tactics and the American casualty rates declined.

In the last decade combat death rate for American troops in Afghanistan varied from about 200 to 587 dead per 100,000 troops per year. In Iraq, from 2004-7, the deaths among American troops ran at a little higher. After al Qaeda admitted defeat in Iraq in 2008, the U.S. death rate in Iraq dropped to less than 200 dead per 100,000 troops per year within two years, and to nothing by the end of 2011 (as the last Americans troops left). Compared to Vietnam and World War II, the death rate (losses per 100,000 troops per year) of troops in Iraq was two-thirds less and Afghanistan even less than that. Around the world, military professionals are studying the American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for useful tips on how to win against such a massive terrorist effort, with such low losses.

The problem with the ROE was that, in response, American commanders just let the Taliban get away more frequently. This lowered the Taliban death rate somewhat and that annoyed Afghan civilians but made it more difficult to accuse the Americans of killing a lot of civilians. After 2009 the portion of civilian deaths caused by the Taliban kept climbing and has stayed over 80 percent ever since. Most of the non-Taliban deaths were caused by Afghan security forces.

 

 


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