During an exchange with a Senatorial Aide, I received from him the link to a piece written by a Colonel Tony Pfaff, USA. The piece is entitled, ‘RISK, MILITARY ETHICS AND IRREGULAR WARFARE’. In this piece the Colonel details the problems encountered in asymmetrical combat, the unwieldy and artificially established parameters thrust upon not only unit field leaders but upon individual combatants as well.
He refers to the ‘absurdities’ created in an environment created by the unusual mix of non-combatants, friendly combatants and ‘irregular’ fighters. The absurdities he refers to amount to forcing friendly combatants to measure the value of life on a sliding scale with the non-combatant at the top and the friendly combatant at the bottom. To his credit, he makes it clear that a commander should never take the indefensible position of not considering protection of his force when planning and carrying out the mission.
The main problem with the piece is that while it accurately portrays the combatant as being the instrument through which a sovereign nation can project violence to protect it’s citizenry and thus rightly assumes risk on it’s behalf, it never-the-less tries to equate all human life. From the vantage point of a government’s responsibility to it’s citizenry, that should never be an issue. From a strictly objective view point and certainly through the eyes of our Founding Fathers and our Constitution, all men are indeed created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights “by their creator”. The problem, however, is that men are free to determine for themselves who that “creator” is and whether he has indeed established that standard for literally all men or if he has decreed that unbelievers should be brutalized, and killed.
While I do recognize and agree with the Founding Fathers on the rights of all men, I do not see the world as flat. I recognize that there are indeed men who have given themselves to ideologies that run counter to our unique understanding of that vision and that some men in fact hold ill in their hearts for any who do not believe as they do. Such are they who hold to the doctrines of Islam and the entire population in Afghanistan stands in excess of 98% compliant with that religion.
Colonel Pfaff continues and quotes from Walzter:
“While commanders are expected to conserve soldiers’ lives as a matter of military necessity, the demands of irregular warfare– where support of the local population is critical to mission accomplishment–place almost all the risk associated with conducting operations onto the soldier.
The difficulty for the standard view [conventional warfare] is that when choosing where to transfer risk–mission, enemy civilians, or themselves–combatants must always choose to transfer risk to themselves, except when the mission itself is at stake. By placing friendly combatants lowest in priority in terms of risk avoidance, one effectively denies them the right to life. By denying them the right to life, they are denied the protection of the state they are defending. This view is explicitly held by Walzer who notes:
“The immediate problem is that soldiers who do the fighting …lose the rights they are supposedly defending. They gain war rights as combatants and potential prisoners, but they can now be attacked and killed at will by the enemy. Simply by fighting … they have lost their rights to life and liberty … and they have lost it, even though, unlike aggressors states, they have committed no crime.” ”
Doesn’t this by necessity draw into question the efficacy of COIN warfare? While history demonstrates not only the unusual risks associated with this sort of campaign, it also illustrates the futility of defining mission accomplishment in an environment where the local population and/or the government is not equally invested to the point of willingness to sacrifice their own lives for their own benefit. The popularized phrase, “winning of hearts and minds” in itself is a damning indictment of the reluctance of the local population to even agree with the “liberating force”. And if they must be “convinced” first, was there ever an emergency of conscience to begin with?
This is a further indictment against our Sovereign leader’s ability to define the enemy and separate them from the “non-combatant/innocents” in that country. It should also force us to reconsider just how far from the original mission of retribution for the actions of 9/11 we have strayed!
The Colonel then moves the discussion from combat operations to law enforcement with such fluidity as to suggest they not only should exist simultaneously, but says that the Soldier and Marine should be expected to operate in both environments, alternately, with ease. While that may seem reasonable as an operation ages and in fact did happen in both Japan and Germany in the forties, it is worthy to note that the transition there did not occur until after Germany and Japan had capitulated. It is also worthy to note that we were fighting regular forces answerable to the Sovereign governments of both those countries. We were also battling and then working with men who had a sense of personal honor not unlike our own. Their understanding of their responsibilities to their sovereign government and then to us as occupiers was measured by their own government’s mandate for them. Once their government capitulated, they essentially laid down their arms.
Neither the Taliban nor Al Qaeda represents a Sovereign government or a people if we are to believe the ISAF and United States narrative. I have argued that at least the Taliban are as much an Afghan phenomenon in Afghanistan as their brothers in Pakistan are, Pakistani. Because of that distinction, separating them from the civilian population is not only daunting, but fruitless because they are, essentially, the same. Making that case need not go further than a quick look at IED proliferation. I will use an analogy: We live on a rural dirt road, in a rural town that is approximately 3.5 miles long and has a population of approximately 100. I can tell you with confidence that no one can travel down this road, much less spit on it without someone and sometimes everyone knowing it. As such, enforcement of the law and security of property and lives here is a relatively simple task. In any case, nothing goes undetected.
In Afghanistan, if we are to believe the narrative, the average Afghan citizen only wants ‘peace’ and security from the Taliban. According to Karzai and our government, we are (were) there to offer them that opportunity. If this is true and the average Afghan does not agree with the Taliban, then there should be very few instances of IED’s being successfully set and nearly zero of ISAF, NATO and American troops falling victim to them. The facts show something decidedly different, however. In a land that is by any measure rural and where digging a hole in a road and setting an explosive device would surely be noticed by some if not all of the population adjacent to the IED site, there is little evidence that a plurality of the population in any of the areas we have operated in, have made a good faith effort to aid in the identification and location of either the IED’s or the ‘perpetrators’ and the staggering numbers of amputees and deaths as a result of that lack of non-combatant good faith effort punctuates the point.
If we extend this conversation of Afghan civilian/non-combatant situational awareness to the presence of Taliban and Al Qaeda members in their midst, it is extremely difficult to make the case that the ‘non-combatant’ element of Afghan society is not also complicit on some level. And if they are complicit, there is one question that has not been adequately answered by the Colonel and that is whether anyone, with a straight face, can declare any portion of the population as non-combatants. And if we can’t, then the apparent ethical problem plaguing our Sovereign government and our upper echelon military leaders is a self-inflicted wound that has neutralized their ability to consider force protection as primary during combat operations in an ideologically monolithic society like Afghanistan.
As a consequence of that misplaced ethical concern for an inappropriately identified non-combatant population, they have unnecessarily endangered our forces and reduced their combat effectiveness by forcing them to consider the lives of these ‘non-combatants’ as superior to their own. This is the very definition of ‘unreasonable risk’.
As an unintended consequence, this has made this Sovereign nation less secure and it’s population less safe.
At the same time, they have emboldened an unsophisticated gaggle of murderers and their compatriots (the complicit ‘non-combatant’) and have caused our allies to have far less confidence in our ability to accurately identify legitimate threats across the world and drawn into question our willingness to meet them on any field of combat with appropriate force.
Colonel Pfaff also quoted Israeli Asa Kasher and then Major General Amos Yadlin who refuted Waltzer’s earlier claim that the state should always place the life of the combatant as a last concern remarking:
“…the duty to minimize casualties among combatants during combat is last on the list of priorities … we reject such a conception because it is immoral.”  The authors argued that the state’s obligation to protect its citizens from harm–which justifies the use of force in the first place–extends also to soldiers. While recognizing that soldiers do assume risks friendly civilians do not, they argue that soldiers still retain their rights to life. The state may be justified in putting his life at risk because of its obligation to defend all citizens, but the obligation to protect the soldier to the extent commensurate with his duties does not go away.”
To which I say; AMEN!