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Afghan War Strategy Risks: Go In Hard or Go In Soft?

5 years ago
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David Wood
Chief Military Correspondent
CAMP GUERNSEY, Wyo. -- Spread out in combat formation, M-4 carbines loosely held at the ready, Chaos Company's 1st platoon stepped across tufts of dry grass and clots of late-winter snow. When they crested a hill, the village of Ali Kehl came into view. At that point, Sgt. 1st Class Jerell Daniels had a choice: go in hard, or go in soft.

He peered across the western plains at the motley collection of steel shipping containers meant to represent an Afghan village. Video from a Raven drone overhead showed armed men in the village. If they were hostile, Daniels should launch his platoon into the village like marauding Mongols. That abrupt offensive would keep his soldiers safe from ambush.

But the armed Afghans could be local police, potential allies. And Daniels' orders were to make friends, if possible. That meant approaching the village in a non-threatening posture -- a more dangerous proposition.

Daniels took the risk. "Don't do anything hostile!'' he barked to his men. "Your hands should be nowhere near your triggers,'' and they strode into the village wary but smiling, weapons pointed down.

With its combat deployment to Afghanistan coming up soon, the soldiers of Chaos Company and the rest of the 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, are training here to master the most vexing set of questions the U.S. military has faced in generations:

How to sort out ordinary people from the enemy? How to win the trust of ordinary Afghans, and then how to protect them? And what to do with the enemy – kill them, chase them away, or try to win them over?

It used to be that such questions were considered in the sanctity of generals' offices in the rear, where strategy was debated and settled, often in consultation with the White House. Guys like Daniels, a 41-year-old Texan from Dallas, were never asked their opinions.

Now these decisions are made on the spot by the lieutenants and sergeants who lead platoons of roughly two dozen soldiers. It is their assessment of local conditions that will determine how much risk to their soldiers to accept to accomplish the objective set out by the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal: secure the local population, win their trust, support the Afghan government.

McChrystal's strategy directives also put American troops squarely on the defense. With rare exceptions, like the recent battle for Marja, the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan assaulted last month by U.S. and Afghan forces, American troops will react to attacks, not initiate them.

"The fight has changed 100 percent,'' said Daniels' battalion commander, Lt. Col. Chris Ramsey. "Somebody's going to have to push you -- and you'll have to react.

"McChrystal's guidance? We've all read it. This is harder for guys with multiple (combat) deployments. Iraq was a different dynamic, you just went kinetic,'' Ramsey said, meaning, you start shooting. "We understand you can't kill 'em all. This is harder. You're in a place where you're hit with an IED one day and the next day you're doing humanitarian assistance in the same place.

"You have to control your emotions,'' said Ramsey, 43, who has fought in Iraq under the Army's Special Operations Command.

How Daniels and other platoon leaders do that is crucial as the Afghan war moves into a new phase, more tricky and dangerous than the past eight years. Under McChrystal's direction, troops will focus on protecting the population, not on killing the enemy.

That means troops will leave behind their armored trucks and fortified bases and get out into the villages. Winning local trust will often mean removing sunglasses, helmets and body armor.

Going in "soft'' like that might "expose military personnel and civilians to greater risk in the near term,'' McChrystal has acknowledged. "But historical experience in counterinsurgency warfare ... suggests that accepting some risk in the short term will ultimately save lives in the long run ... face-to-face relationships, rather than close combat, will achieve success.''

In this new phase of war, even the enemy might not be the enemy. U.S. and allied troops "must identify opportunities to reintegrate former mid- to low-level insurgent fighters into normal society by offering them a way out,'' says a McChrystal directive.

In short, McChrystal said, "the enemy may be killed, captured or reintegrated.''

All these ideas and theories fermented inside Daniels' head as he led his platoon on its deceptively simple mission: scope out the village, look around for bad guys, meet the village elders and make friends.

He engaged a man who turned out to be the local Afghan police officer, (played by an off-duty trooper) while the platoon's infantrymen fanned out through the village's muddy lanes, nodding at the locals (more off-duty troopers).

"His security piece is just garbage,'' observed 1st Sgt. Joe Gaskin, watching Daniels' men stroll through the village. Gaskin wanted, like Daniels, to expose his soldiers to less risk, maybe by flanking the village with two machine gun teams for added security. But it's Daniels' call. "Villagers outnumber us 2 to 1,'' Gaskin grumbled. "Hey! You think the middle of the street is a good place for you?'' he yelled at an idling infantryman.

"No, first sar'nt,'' the soldier replied, moving to the edge of the street for better cover from a potential sniper.

In this training event, Daniels had called it right: There were no enemy in the village, and his men finished up the operation safely. But talking it over later with Gaskin and Chaos Company's commander, Capt. Paul Rothlisberger, it was clear there are no easy answers.

"My idea is to come in with a non-aggressive posture, but with clear fields of fire,'' said Rothlisberger, who has also fought in Iraq. "I favor accepting more risk. Going in, your posture sets everybody's expectations. You go in too aggressive, you potentially shut down people's cooperation. But be prepared if something happens.''

Gaskin had slightly different advice. "Always assume the worst,'' he said. "I liked the way you came in not too aggressive,'' he told Daniels. "It showed you as a platoon leader are not afraid. But you might have sent your security element in ahead of you, so just rethink that.''

"What about the cell phones?'' Gaskin demanded. During the training scenario, several "villagers" were talking on cell phones -- which could be used to call in Taliban or to set off makeshift bombs. "We don't want people using cell phones, but we don't wanna grab them and smash them on the ground, either. Just go, 'Hey, put that thing away for later,' or something like that. You gotta do it without offending the population -- though sometimes you have to offend the population.''

McChrystal's guidance "means accepting more risk -- we understand that,'' said Rothlisberger. But he instructed his platoon leaders always to keep violence as a ready option.

"Don't forget the kinetic stuff,'' he said. "That's real important and one day it'll save your life.''

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