By Michael Broihier
In 1999, a Marine general wrote as part of a concept he called the Three Block War of an actor he called the “Strategic Corporal,” and after hearing that a US soldier probably murdered over a dozen Afghans, mostly women and children, over the weekend, I went back and reread the paper.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and the end of the Cold War and its accompanying stability, Krulak wrote that Marines and soldiers in the future would face an array of challenges that no US warfighter had ever been asked to face. He said that increasingly agile opponents would use asymmetric means to level the playing field against us, that the difficulty of distinguishing combatants and non-combatants and the actions of non-state actors would cause a confusing and dangerous milieu for junior officers and noncommissioned officers, and that the stakes of each decision made on the battlefield was raised exponentially because of “the ubiquitous media whose presence will mean that all future conflicts will be acted out before an international audience.”
Krulak described his future Marine NCO as “strategic” because in the world he envisioned, one man’s actions could decide success or failure for a nation. Perhaps that moment has come in Afghanistan.
The Afghans are hardy people with a long heritage of occupation and resistance to outside influence. They have endured and broken many armies over the centuries and when the US set out to destroy the Taliban government that had enabled al-Qaeda safe haven to plan and execute their terror schemes everyone predicted that we would fail as every one had before, but our plan was different; we did not go to Afghanistan to dominate its people, but liberate them, as friends instead of enemies.
Our counterinsurgency efforts sought simultaneously to destroy the Taliban and win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people to deny future Taliban safe haven. Ten years and almost 3,000 coalition deaths later, those sacrifices stand on the brink of being wasted. A lone man, with murder on his mind, went into the streets of several villages and destroyed the trust and good faith our servicemen and women have fought so hard to earn. There has been other incidents; a video of Marine snipers urinating on dead Taliban, proof that soldiers had burned copies of the Koran, for example, but nothing like this.
Almost exactly 19 years ago, one of my Marines went into the streets of Mogadishu with murder on his mind. A 13-year old boy swiped his sunglasses and Gunnery Sergeant Harry Conde fired a 40-mm buckshot round into the fleeing boy’s back. The boy and another who was wounded lived and we prosecuted an unrepentant Conde, but even the guilty verdict could not undo the damage that was done. Even without al-Jazeera and Youtube distrust and suspicion were in the air and looking the people we were there to save in the eye was hard for every Marine and sailor in the unit. Though we never ascertained Conde’s motive I am certain that whatever his purpose, he had not only endangered the life of every US serviceman on the streets of Mogadishu, but the success of the mission itself.
When I returned from Somalia I wrote a monograph on the operation that ended with ten rules for Low Intensity Combat, the term we had before “Three Block War” and the newer one, COIN, for counterinsurgency. The first rule was “Primum non nocere,” Latin for “First, do no harm,” the seminal precept taught to medical students. Success or failure of military operations other than war hinges on hearts and minds and every misstep, big or small, erodes the chance of success. The murders in Afghanistan last weekend were a big one.
I believe in the mission in Afghanistan and the righteousness of those executing, but we may have come to the point where our presence is doing more harm than good. If we leave now the Taliban will certainly resume their evil enterprise but there is no saying that in one, two or five years the same thing won’t happen, particularly if the case of the murderous sergeant is not quickly and satisfactorily resolved.
Under our Status of Forces Agreement with the Afghan government, the US retains exclusive rights to prosecute criminal acts of our service members and the suspect, who’s confessed to the crime, has to be afforded due process, however, if found guilty this soldier may pay for his crimes with his life. Not only will the Afghan people demand it, but the success or failure of the entire mission may hinge on whether or not justice is perceived to have been served.
Our mission in Afghanistan stands on the brink and our sacrifices to this point, though honorable, are sadly a sunk cost. If the present case cannot be satisfactorily resolved with the people of Afghanistan and future incidents avoided we will be doing more harm than good in our fight against terrorism and it might be time to fold our tents and come home.
First, do no harm
Cartoon by Bob Gorrell