Allen West made an appeal this past weekend that has gone viral on the Web, on behalf of Army 1LT Clint Lorance, who has been sentenced to 20 years for the “murder” of two Taliban scouts in Kandahar Province in 2012.
West refers – correctly – to the following untenable deficiencies in the conditions under which our troops have to operate in Afghanistan:
According to our ridiculous Rules of Engagement, soldiers in a combat zone are told to hold their fire unless there is evidence of hostile action or direct hostile intent. … If there are enemy combatants reporting your patrol movements in order to facilitate an attack, how is that not hostile intent? … What an incredible dilemma for our men and women in combat: fight and kill the enemy and be sent to prison. Or be killed by the enemy and be denied your death gratuity benefits.
A full description of the event is here. The website mounts a defense of 1LT Lorance, but the average military officer will recognize, even from its friendly account, that there were judgment calls made by Lorance that others might question later. Lorance was convicted via court-martial by a jury of his fellow officers. The Army can point that out, rightly or wrongly, as evidence of his culpability.*
What is important to understand about this situation goes beyond its implied indictment of the rules of engagement for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Rules of engagement (ROE) are a subordinate factor: they improve or deteriorate with the overall viability and executability of the larger mission. What’s at fault here is the Obama strategy for Afghanistan. It has been flawed from the beginning, and 1LT Lorance’s dilemma perfectly encapsulates what’s wrong with it.
1LT Lorance’s plight is what it looks like, to “not win” in Afghanistan, but only to keep a toehold there as a base for sniping at al Qaeda (plus as much of the Taliban as necessary to hang onto the Central Asian sniper base). Choosing to not improve security conditions there means enshrining and trying to preserve the combat conditions that have caught 1LT Lorance in a vise. The problem with the Obama strategy is that Lorance’s dilemma is not the regrettable, transient cost of a campaign that’s aiming for a better outcome. It is accepted, rather, as the permanent condition we’re trying to preserve.
When Obama and his advisors were deliberating General Stanley McChrystal’s 2009 proposal for a surge, the president decided not to go with the McChrystal strategy of focusing on pacifying – clearing and holding – one part of the country (the south), and eventually expanding a pacification surge to other parts of Afghanistan. Instead, his administration chose consciously to go with “less than that”: effectively, to not pacify Afghanistan at all, but rather to do just enough to keep U.S. forces in country for a while, and be able from there to hunt down and kill transnational jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
McChrystal (and then-ambassador Karl Eikenberry, formerly the U.S. commander in Afghanistan) warned in 2009 that attempting to merely hold a few portions of Afghanistan, unpacified, would be unworkable. (See an extended discussion here, with links in the comments section as well as the body of the piece.) If we assume that the lives and morale of our own troops matter, and that Afghanistan’s future matters – indeed, if we assume that it matters what we leave behind in Central Asia – McChrystal and Eikenberry were right.
No situation in which one side is relentlessly active and pushing can remain static, even if the active side is the weaker one. The Taliban have had the initiative in Afghanistan for more than four years now; when 1LT Lorance took his fateful patrol out, in July 2012, they had had it for at least two and a half. In the interim, the Taliban’s momentum changed the dynamic of interaction unfavorably for U.S. and other NATO troops on the ground, as well as for the Afghan people.
Increasingly, ISAF troops are there only to occupy a few bases and be able to launch aircraft from them, regardless of what’s going on outside those bases. The reluctance of junior officers, at the platoon level, to lead patrols in the hinterlands of southern Afghanistan is emblematic of the overall situation. The problem of “green on blue” insider attacks – Afghans in joint operations with U.S. troops turning on the Americans – has been especially acute; indeed, was so bad in mid-2012 that the U.S. suspended joint patrols for a time in September 2012. The situation has improved marginally, but has by no means been resolved.
The Obama strategy for Afghanistan is couched in such terms that all of this is more of a feature than a bug. As long as U.S. forces can remain in Afghanistan until their promised orderly withdrawal, without the fallout of “bad optics” for the administration, it doesn’t matter what the impact is on anyone else: our soldiers in the field, or the people of Afghanistan. The conditions mandated by the Obama strategy are what set up the ambiguities and decision-making dilemmas faced by junior officers like 1LT Lorance. And the strategy has no vision for eventually correcting this. It does not propose to offer either operational relief to the conflicted JOs, or a political win, at the end of it all, to justify their sacrifice.
We know this from the explicit statements of policy-makers in 2009 and 2010. Some of them have been excerpted at the links above. In 2010, officials of the Obama administration made other statements that overlaid perfectly with the Johnson-McNamara approach in Vietnam: the approach of “not winning,” but of seeking instead to encourage a settlement by presenting the opponent with a “calculus of risks.” Negotiating with the Taliban – previewed by Richard Holbrooke’s “success without victory” formulation in 2010 – has been seriously pursued by the Obama administration in 2013 (to the point of releasing terrorists from U.S. custody as a token of good faith).
1LT Lorance isn’t the first officer in command to be faced with an ugly, high-risk, morale-killing dilemma, nor will he be the last one to be second-guessed and found wanting by a jury of his peers. I don’t know what the totality of the evidence offered at his court-martial looked like, or what I would have done if I had sat on the panel. I don’t assume the results of the court-martial were necessarily misinformed, corrupt, or just plain wrong.
But I do know that it was national policy that put a young officer in the intolerable command situation outlined by Allen West. It was unjust of the United States to put him in that situation. It was particularly unjust given the knowledge we have from history of what happens when presidents put our troops in harm’s way with a strategy of “not winning,” as we did in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia. It turns out badly in every case. When your national strategy is to “not win,” you automatically push insoluble decision-making ambiguities to lower levels of command, instead of reserving them to the highest level – the politically accountable level – where they belong.
War is hell. But that’s why our political leaders are obliged to wage it in our name with executable guidance, and for objectives that justify its horrors. The Lorance case is evidence that Obama has failed to do that in Afghanistan.
* It matters what the judgment calls were. The ones I see are (a) Lorance’s decision to take a patrol out, under conditions in which other officers were deciding not to mount patrols at all; and (b) the decision to engage individuals on a motorcycle whom any officer would correctly assume to be Taliban, but who had not yet made a threatening move, in the narrowest sense of not having opened fire on Lorance’s patrol. The Taliban scouts were assuredly a threat, as Allen West points out. They were tracking the U.S. patrol, probably in preparation for an attack. But they hadn’t literally opened fire.
It is to be noted that not patrolling at all – the frequent choice of other officers – meant leaving the local area defenseless against the Taliban, and subject to a daily increase in Taliban control. That, in turn, meant that Afghan civilians in the area were not abroad on the local territory. Only the Taliban were out roaming it. And, in fact, air (helicopter-borne) support crew had been reporting to Lorance’s patrol on the activities of Taliban scouts who fit the description of the men Lorance ordered the attack on.