Infantry: Why Spray And Pray Will Not Go Away

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October 10, 2013: While Afghans admire the superior fighting ability of NATO troops, they have a difficult time adopting the equipment and techniques that make these foreigners more lethal and less vulnerable on the battlefield. The problem is that most Afghans are still basically tribal warriors at heart. In a battle even those with good shooting skills will fire wildly and move about with more spirit than sense. The average Afghan, brought up to follow the traditional warrior traditions, is not trained to carry out a lot of smart battlefield moves and is easily panicked. The Pushtun tribesmen of this part of the world have a tradition of fleeing a lost battle and not fighting to the last man. Thus, if you can make the Afghans think they are about to be surrounded by superior forces they will flee. U.S. and Afghan government forces not only have better training and leadership but also know these traditional tribal tactics and how best to exploit them.

The problem NATO trainers and advisors have is that too many Afghan troops and police will, under the stress of combat, revert back to their tribal ways. That means going head-to-head with the enemy for a shootout and maybe even some hand-to-hand action. The NATO advisors who accompany most Afghan battalions, to observe how well the training is used and advise on how to deal with problems, find that the Afghan commanders and NCOs have a hard time stopping their troops from going old school and often just go along with it. This despite the fact that the Afghan commanders are smart guys and are well aware of how much more effective the Western tactics are. But the Afghan commanders also realize that once most foreign troops are gone at the end of 2014, there may be no more NATO air support and it may take a while before the Afghan Air Force can provide much smart bomb capability. So it makes some sense to develop tactics that combine Western and Afghan methods. The NATO advisors are thinking short term while the Afghan commanders are taking the long view.

NATO trainers are also frustrated at their inability to train Afghans to shoot accurately. The Afghan soldiers and police, despite the constant example of superior marksmanship on the part of foreign troops, persist in pointing their weapons, instead of aiming them. On a positive note a growing number of older Afghans are trying to revive the neglected Afghan tradition of marksmanship. This can be seen by the increase in the use of sniping by the Taliban and eagerness that many army and police recruits show for sniper training. Back in 2010 NATO units in southern Afghanistan estimated there has been a sharp (over 30 percent) percent increase in sniping incidents in the previous 2 years. This was not seen as a major danger. NATO troops wear protective vests and helmets that can stop bullets fired at long range, making it very frustrating for the Taliban shooters trying to hit a distant target in a vulnerable spot. And there was not a lot of sniping by the Taliban to begin with.

The decline of the traditional Afghan marksmanship dates back three decades. Back before the Russians showed up in 1979, the best weapon an Afghan could hope to have was a World War II, or World War I, era bolt action rifle. These weapons were eclipsed in the 1980s by a lot of free (for Afghans fighting the invading Russians) AK-47s and the RPG rocket launchers. The young guys took to the AK-37 and the thrill of emptying a 30 round magazine on full automatic. Not bad for a brief firefight and suddenly hardly anyone, except a few old timers, wanted to use the old bolt action rifle or learn how to hit anything with single shots. The RPG rocket launcher became the favored way to take out long-distance (up to 500 meters) targets. It was portable artillery for the tribal warrior and great fun for a warrior to use.

It was not noticed much outside of Afghanistan that this shift in weaponry brought to an end a long Afghan tradition of precision, long range shooting. Before the 1980s, this skill was treasured for both hunting and warfare. When doing neither, Afghan men played games centered on marksmanship. One, for example, involved a group of men chipping in and buying a goat. The animal was then tethered to a rock, often on a hill, and then the half dozen or so men moved several hundred meters away and drew lots to see who would fire in what order. The first man to drop the goat won it. Since Afghanistan was the poorest nation in Asia, ammo was expensive, and older men taught the young boys all the proper moves needed to get that first shot off accurately and make it count.

During the 1980s, Saudi Arabia spent billions of dollars to arm Afghans with all the AK-47s and RPGs and ammo they could use, and they used lots of it. But rarely for target practice. Compared to bolt-action rifles like the British Lee-Enfield, the AK-47 was less accurate when one shot at a time was fired. The old timers, or a few young traditionalists, kept their Lee-Enfields and made themselves useful picking off Russian soldiers at long distances, on those rare occasions where that was needed. A few Afghans noted that the AK-47 fired one shot at a time and was pretty accurate out to about 300 meters, but in wide-open Afghanistan that was not long enough. Meanwhile, the Russians had more firepower and it was rarely prudent for Afghans to stay too close to them for too long. So "spray and pray" (going full automatic all the time) became the new Afghan warrior tradition.

NATO trainers get nowhere by mentioning the old Afghan warrior tradition of sharpshooting. The lack of discipline, and literacy, among so many Afghan recruits leaves less time for weapons training anyway. Meanwhile, the allure of "spray and pray" is too strong for a generation that has access to automatic weapons, and all the ammo they can carry.

The Afghans morn their dead like anyone else and miss fallen battlefield comrades. But it’s an Afghan tradition to entertain each other with stories of valiant warriors you knew and how well many of them died. For many Afghans that has more appeal than growing old as a deadly, but not very flashy, professional killer. Some Afghans have pleased their NATO trainers and become deadly Western-style soldiers. But most Afghans are still drawn to the more dangerous and less efficient traditional combat methods. 

 


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