The extreme aversion of the US and Israeli armies to own-soldier casualties has huge and often unintended consequences in the realms of both strategic effectiveness and ethics. This is now being amply demonstrated with regard both to Israel’s practices in Gaza (and the West Bank), and US military’s practices in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Joshua Foust of the generally excellent Registan blog has a ‘guest writer’ gig on the Reuters Pakistan blog, summing up the most important things he learned during his just-completed ten-week military embed with the US forces in Afghanistan.
His main point, well illustrated in the Reuters post, is that the culture of extreme casualty aversion that’s dominant in the US military hobbles it from waging effective “counter-insurgency” in Afghanistan.
Writing that, “It is a cliché that, in counterinsurgency, one must be among ‘the people’,” Foust then shows some of the many ways in which the own-soldier casualty aversion of the US forces in Afghanistan means that that is not happening:
- A rural insurgency is a devil’s game. It is difficult for a foreign counterinsurgent force to concentrate itself to maximize effectiveness, in part because the insurgency itself is not concentrated. When there are no obvious population clusters, there are no obvious choices for bases. Bagram Air Base, the country’s largest military base, is in the middle of nowhere, comparatively speaking – dozens of miles north of Kabul, and a 45-minute drive from Charikar, the nearest city in Parwan Province. FOB Salerno, a large base in Khost Province, is miles away from Khost City, the province’s capital-and the road in between is riddled with IEDs.
The many smaller bases strung in between are surrounded by enormous Hesco barriers, concertina wire, and guard towers. No one is allowed on the base without being badged and interviewed by base security, and in many places delivery trucks are forced to wait in the open for 24 hours before completing their trips to the dining halls, clinics, or technology offices.
There are other ways in which Coalition Forces are separated from the people of Afghanistan beyond their heavily fortified bases. Most transit – on patrol, on delivery runs, or on humanitarian missions – is performed through Mine Resistance Ambush Protection, or MRAP vehicles. These enormous trucks, thickly plated with metal blast shields on the bottom with tiny blue-tinted ballistic glass, make it near-impossible to even see the surrounding countryside from another other than the front seat.
On the narrow mountain roads that sometimes collapse under the mutli-ton trucks, soldiers drive, too, in up-armored Humvees, which are similarly coated in thick plates of armor and heavy glass windows they aren’t allowed to open.
When soldiers emerge from their imposing vehicles, they are covered from head to groin in various forms of shielding: thick ceramic plates on the torso, the ubiquitous Kevlar helmets, tinted ballistic eye glasses, neck and nape guards, heavy shrapnel-resistant flaps of fabric about the shoulders and groin, and fire-resistant uniforms. A common sentiment among Afghans who see these men and women wandering in their midst is that they look like aliens, or, if they know of them, robots.
There is no doubt that MRAPs, up-armored Humvees, and the seventy pounds or so of bullet and blast shielding has saved the lives of countless soldiers. But counterinsurgency is counterintuitive: in the relentless quest to ensure a casualty-free war, it seems the West has begun to engineer its own defeat.
By separating itself so completely from the population it claims to be trying to win-even at Bagram, where there is almost no combat, ever, it is almost impossible for a soldier or civilian to walk outside the gates to purchase something in the nearby bazaar-there remain precious few opportunities to do the gritty work of actually trying to “win hearts and minds”.
The end result is stark: in a war that is desperately short of the troops needed to provide security to increasingly less remote communities, 93% of the soldiers stationed at the Coalition’s primary base never walk outside the gates. Instead of a focus on separating the insurgents from the population – another clichéd pillar of counterinsurgency – the focus seems instead to be simply killing as many of the enemy as can be identified.
I would just amend what he writes in one way, what “the west” is trying to fight in Afghanistan is not entirely a “casualty-free war”, but rather one in which the casualties among its own soldiers are reduced as far as possible toward zero. Casualties among the identified “enemy” may indeed, as he writes, tend to get maximized. But intense aversion to own-soldier casualties also– in both Afghanistan and Gaza– leads to far greater casualties than would otherwise be the case among the civilian population.
In Gaza, as many testimonies from the IDF soldiers themselves have now made clear, the general ROEs were that own-soldier casualties should be avoided even if that meant opening fire on Palestinian civilians. That, despite the fact that even the IDF’s own code of ethical conduct reminds soldiers that a soldier has a duty under international law to avoid civilian casualties even at the cost of some additional risk to his own troops.
In Gaza, many of the killings of civilians were fairly up-close affairs, but others were inflicted from drones or from aircraft flying at very high altitude– just like the way the US forces operate in Afghanistan (and Pakistan.)
This does not, as Foust notes, help win “hearts and minds” in a counter-insurgency context in Afghanistan.
And nor did it succeed, in Gaza, in inflicting a paralyzing dose of “shock and awe” to the Gazan population, where that seemed to be more of the intention than any form of, um, winning “hearts and minds.”
In today’s Haaretz, Amos Harel writes that before the latest Gaza war:
- The General Staff expected that Israelis would have trouble accepting heavy Israel Defense Forces losses.
The army chose to overcome this problem with an aggressive plan that included overwhelming firepower. The forces, it was decided, would advance into the urban areas behind a “rolling curtain” of aerial and artillery fire, backed up by intelligence from unmanned aircraft and the Shin Bet. The lives of our soldiers take precedence, the commanders were told in briefings. Before the operation, [GOC Southern Command Yoav] Galant and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi painted a bleak picture for the cabinet ministers. “Unlike in Lebanon, the civilians in Gaza won’t have many places to escape to,” Ashkenazi warned. “When an armored force enters the city, shells will fly, because we’ll have to protect our people.”
A large part of the operation was conducted by remote control. “The Palestinians are completely transparent to us,” says A., a reservist whose brigade was posted in the Gaza Strip. “The Shin Bet has people everywhere. We observe the whole area from the air and usually the Shin Bet coordinator can also tell you who lives in what house.” The Shin Bet defines the enemy and, for the most part, someone who belongs to Hamas’ civilian welfare organizations (the da’awa) is treated the same way as a member of its military wing, the Iz al-Din al-Qassam.
Essentially, a person only needs to be in a “problematic” location, in circumstances that can broadly be seen as suspicious, for him to be “incriminated” and in effect sentenced to death. Often, there is no need for him to be identified as carrying a weapon. Three people in the home of a known Hamas operative, someone out on a roof at 2 A.M. about a kilometer away from an Israeli post, a person walking down the wrong street before dawn – all are legitimate targets for attack.
“It feels like hunting season has begun,” says A. “Sometimes it reminds me of a Play Station [computer] game. You hear cheers in the war room after you see on the screens that the missile hit a target, as if it were a soccer game.”
…There is a discrepancy between the official military response, of denial and horrified disapproval, the testimonies of the Rabin pre-military preparatory course graduates, and the response to those reports by key officers, unwilling to be identified.
“What did you think would happen?” a senior officer wondered this week. “We sent 10,000 troops into Gaza, more than 200 tanks and armored personnel carriers, 100 bulldozers. What were 100 bulldozers going to do there?”
The IDF estimates that approximately 2,000 houses were destroyed in the fighting. The Palestinians say the figure is twice that. IDF officers, who were not surprised by the testimonies, recalled that during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, military courts convicted soldiers for killing civilians, including the British peace activist Tom Hurndall, who was killed in Gaza in 2003.
Harel also reminds us that it was not until the Second Intifada, which started in 2000, that the IDF judge advocate general “annulled the practice of opening an investigation into every killed Palestinian.”
Wow, that would be how many investigations they would have to launch into what went on in Gaza?
What Harel writes about the IDF’s targeting doctrine indicates very clearly indeed that the IDF was not trying to make the distinction, deemed essential under international humanitarian law, between combatant (legal) and noncombatant (illegal) targets.
I don’t have time to write more about this important topic now. I’ll just note that the lethal and destructive consequences of the decision that both the IDF and apparently also the US military have made, to work to avoid own-soldier casualties even where this can clearly be expected to increase the casualties inflicted on noncombatants are first and foremost quite tragic for the civilian residents of the war-zone.
Making this decision to value the lives of one’s own soldiers above that of civilian residents of the war-zone is racist and, quite simply, illegal under international humanitarian law.
Also, at the end of the day these decisions are strategically either ineffective in these kinds of wars or even actively counter-productive.
All of Foust’s post there on the Reuters blog bears close reading. He points out that the extreme own-soldier casualty aversion of the US troops in Afghanistan has resulted in huge areas of the country simply being ceded to the effective control of insurgent forces.
He concludes with these wise words:
- It is that mentality – severe risk aversion, coupled with attention paid to process rather than outcome – that risks ultimately undoing the Western mission in Afghanistan. As an institution, the U.S. Army seems unwilling to make the difficult choices necessary to create the conditions for peace: a population that is adequately protected from the crime, drug, and war lords, and therefore no longer contributing to the desperate regional instability.
It is also a mentality that can be challenged in small doses from below, but demands concerted action from above. Command at the highest levels is vital in changing course, and admitting that war is actually a terrible and ghastly thing that requires your own people dying to win. It is a choice not many at the top seem willing to consider.
I should note that I disagree strongly with Foust in his assessment that for the US “winning” in Afghanistan is even possible. But he is a realist; and he’s right to note that the idea that the US can ever “win” in Afghanistan without taking very many casualties among its own soldiers is quite wrongheaded.
He’s equally right to remind everyone that “war is actually a terrible and ghastly thing.”
Because of that, international customary law lays upon every international actor that has a deep conflict with another party a very strong responsibility to find non-military ways to resolve that conflict.
Do such non-military ways exist in the case of Israel, with the Palestinians, or the US, in Afghanistan?
Of course they do.