Working with the U.S. Military in Afghanistan
Foreword: It is not the intent of the author to condemn an entire nation, but rather to illustrate the experiences of dealing with the American military from the perspective of a NATO ally.
After the final Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in February, 1989 until the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom and the American led invasion of the country in October, 2001 there had never been so many troops from so many different countries fulfilling such a variety of different roles across the entirety of this nation.
These troops came to Afghanistan as part of two operations: Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), the beginning of the USA’s Global War on Terrorism, and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), both led by the United States.
For those unfamiliar with the two, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) focuses on combat operations against the Taliban, while the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) consists mostly of non-US forces tasked with maintaining civil order, and on implementing social projects and reconstruction efforts aimed at stabilizing the Afghan government’s control.
It is important for the reader to understand that the ISAF are assigned to zones for which they and only they are responsible. It is understood that the OEF forces would stay clear of these ISAF assigned zones, unless the ISAF forces are not able to deal with a problem, in which case the OEF forces are allowed in for larger operations.
It is also important to understand that during the NATO Afghan deployments, as well as during joint military exercises in Europe, America’s NATO allies are also unified by their frustrations regarding the conduct of the American military forces.
The most frequently cited area of concern regarding the American forces has been their disproportionate uses of force during engagements. In situations where ground forces can safely deal with a situation, American forces will generally use far greater amounts of ordnance than needed, creating a level of destruction far greater than needed – a level of destruction that would qualify in some cases as war crimes.
As an example of this, when a surgical strike with a helicopter launched Hellfire missile could easily resolve a conflict, the American military will instead opt to annihilate a town or village with a series of strikes by 1000 pound GBU-31 and 2000 pound GBU-32 JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) ordnance.
The appalling destruction created by the use of such powerful weapons leaves little more than rubble and dismembered bodies in its wake, with shocked survivors stumbling amidst the ruins searching for relatives and friends, and being treated by the arriving ISAF medical teams. Generally the Americans are nowhere to be found until several weeks later when they arrive to pay whomever remains for this ‘collateral damage’. On average, families are paid $1,000.00 US for each life taken in the strike, with lower payments offered for child casualties. Considering that the cheapest laser-guided bomb costs the US $15,000.00 per unit, these small payments made for the loss of human life caused by these strikes is a bargain for the American forces.
Beyond this disproportionate use of force and loss of innocent life, what infuriates most ISAF troops is the callous, even indifferent attitude of the US forces when challenged regarding this behavior. Some common replies to such criticism are ‘They’re just Afghanis’, or are merely ‘casualties in the War on Terror’, or perhaps ‘they shouldn’t have let terrorists into their homes’.
American troops will often speak in this same manner when the victims are Iraqis, detachedly referring to them in a way more suitable to cattle than to fellow human beings. Whereas US forces often treat civilians as if they were all hostile forces, the ISAF troops do daily patrols, speaking with the residents of the towns and settlements while building relationships and even friendships built on mutual trust.
In addition to the American military’s reliance upon the disproportionate use of force in engagements with hostile forces, and its casual indifference to the ‘collateral damage’ inflicted upon the civilian populace, there exists a secondary source of tension between American forces and their NATO allies. This is the American disregard for the foreign national zones of responsibility and the US attempts to exert total dominance in all situations.
Normally, ISAF operations are under the full control of their respective home countries. Unfortunately, the US military does not consider its allies as equal partners and often goes behind their backs and commences operations without their allies’ knowledge or consent. Obviously this behavior has created a loss of trust in the US army among non-US ISAF commanders.
As an example, on a day without any large scale ISAF operations planned by that country’s forces in the region outside of the basic PRT (Provisional Reconstruction Team) patrols, the local command center of that ISAF region received several disturbing calls
Outposts were reporting the sounds of explosions and gunfire, yet no ISAF patrols were in the region or had reported any contact with hostile forces. In order to gain some understanding of the situation on the ground, a drone launch from the ISAF Forward Operating Base (FOB) was ordered – a process which takes 30 minutes to complete.
During this time reports continued to arrive from the outposts of intensifying gunfire and explosions in the area. Certainly something very serious was going on, but it made no sense to those in the command node. The QRF (Quick Reaction Force) of the nearest FOB was then dispatched, and a mechanized infantry platoon went to investigate. Shortly afterwards the FOB reported civilian pick-ups approaching its gates, full of injured people, the drivers having been instructed by the QRF platoon to head to the FOB to seek medical treatment for the wounded. With most of the fifty plus injured showing signs of various injuries, mostly shrapnel, the FOB requested Medevacs for this mass-casualty event.
RC South, which in addition to its other tasks generally approves and controls all air support and medevacs for the region, called the ISAF command node to inform them of the reason why ISAF forces had been launching its stationed AH-64s, and requested Airspace Clearance in order to fire its base-stationed artillery. The ISAF forces commander was then ‘notified’ that the US special forces were in pursuit of a high-value target in the area of operations, and was then ordered to tell the ISAF troops to ‘stay out of the way’.
In pursuit of this high-value target the American forces were attacking a busy local Afghan market in the middle of the day with a US special forces team on the ground, and a MQ-9 Reaper overhead. Working their way through the market in pursuit of this one individual and his bodyguards, this American action resulted in a large loss of civilian life.
This was a huge blow to any trust that existed in their US ally by those ISAF members who were involved and aware of the true nature of this event and of the reckless disregard displayed by the Americans toward the Afghan civilians in the market.
The manner in which the US changes its stance and position to whatever is most expedient for them at the time also holds true for any agreement made between a foreign army and the US military. The Americans may smile at you as if you were a friend, shake your hand as if they mean it, and make you feel like you are their ally in this War on Terror, but beware – it’s all for show. In the eyes of the US, allies are to be used as auxiliary forces, and are definitely not worthy of being considered as equals.
This is behavior is underlined by how they do not brief their allies about US operations in allied zones of operations. On the other hand, if a non-US force happens to intervene in US operations, they withdraw air support as punishment for “insubordination”.
The US army’s mindset is yet another source of frustration to their allies. Broadly speaking, the members of the US military believe in their own sense of invulnerability and of their ability to overpower any adversary they may choose. The belief that the US military is the largest and most modern military on the planet is a deeply ingrained belief among the Americans, as is the belief that they are warriors fighting the forces of evil wherever in the world they may be deployed.
This belief in the doctrine of ‘American Exceptionalism’ runs deeply in the culture and history of the United States, leading American forces to believe that they possess the best weaponry, training and tactics than any other nation they may face as an adversary. This belief has often directly led to disastrous results in many US actions in Afghanistan. Believing themselves to be superior to any threat they might possibly face, they often throw caution to the wind during their operations.
During mutual US-US Ally operation briefings, US Commanders often criticize their allies for being too passive, too cautious, and for not using the element of surprise enough, often preferring to wait for rotary wing support in the form of attack helicopters, or artillery support, or recon by special forces or drones, or by bringing in additional forces to ensure that any enemy resistance is simply overwhelmed by sheer numbers and firepower.
The non-US forces have never understood the US command’s compulsion to dive head first into fights in order to constantly prove that you have balls of brass. There was always this feeling that US officers have to prove themselves and therefore have to take risks and act fast. Being cautious and creating options that would guarantee the tactical advantage remaining on your side even in changing battlefield conditions is not something they prefer.
No matter who you may ask, be they Czech, German, French, British, Dutch, Canadian, or Australian, all share the opinion that Americans are especially prideful and arrogant.
Here’s an example of a US insertion gone wrong. A US mechanized platoon that had an Apache Gunship providing support was trying to advance to a Taliban-held town, which was situated near a mountain ridge.
During their advance, the Taliban’s daisy chained IEDs (chained roadside buried bombs) took out two of the US vehicles, allowing the Taliban to open fire on them with small arms and RPGs. In order to defend the crippled US convoy, both of the Apache helicopters were ordered to engage the enemy at the top of the mountain ridge at some 2000 meters above sea level, where the thin air reduced the lift from their rotors.
Having lured the Apaches into this higher altitude, the Taliban pulled their brown cloths off of the DSHK emplacements (in short, Russian 50. caliber guns), and opened fire at both gunships. One got its cockpit riddled with bullets, rendering its weapons inoperable, while the other lost an engine and was forced to dump its weapons pylon in order to slow it’s rate of descent.
Both helicopters were taken out of combat and had no other choice than to land at the nearest FOB. The ambushed convoy was left to defend itself until reinforcements could arrive. In the end, the total number of dead among the American troops ended up being in excess of 20, with nearly 40% of the US platoon being wiped out. The Taliban suffered almost no losses during the ambush, having retreated from the immobilized convoy before the American support troops arrived on the scene.
The Taliban are often portrayed as a being no more than ignorant farmers with no training and no tactical insight, sporting old AKs and RPGs, but you would be impressed by how efficiently they can wage a war of attrition against military powers and how smart their commanders can be. This, however, is a topic for another day.
Worse still, the US Army has a long tradition of not learning from past mistakes, and of never admitting that they had been in the wrong. Such an institutional culture of covering up mistakes can only lead to the same mistakes being repeated and resulting in yet more needless loss of life. They perceive the admission of mistakes as being potentially damaging to the image of the US as invincible superpower, and not as a valuable learning experience that could prevent similar errors and losses in the future.
To end on a personal note, I have often stood at Ramp Ceremonies. These were the events where deceased soldiers are loaded onto NATO cargo aircraft to return home, while troops are lined up in honor of the fallen.
It always has irritated me how easily Americans write off their fallen comrades that go home in a wooden box draped in an American flag as “heroes” and never consider why they had died. Was it a failure of command? Did intelligence fail? Or was it just a freak accident? Maybe the entire operation sucked and was poorly thought out from the beginning? During the decade I’ve spent in the service, I have never once heard a US soldier question whether a casualty could have been prevented.
If you, dear reader, are new to the military community, or are an experienced veteran then the following may be of interest to you.
I would like to bring your attention to Operation Anaconda, an operation where the US forces vastly underestimated the Taliban and ended up in a military blunder. There are several documentaries dedicated to this ordeal. Watch one of them, and you’ll get a good picture about the state of the US military in 2017.
Source: South Front