September 07, 2009

On the dying Marine photo

Ricks and Old Blue are suitably irate.

I'll only add my own disappointment, almost purely hinging on the breach of trust issue. In a war zone you need to be able to trust those you're with. By violating the letter and entire spirit of her embedding agreement, the AP photographer in question showed herself, and by extension, other journalists of unworthy of soldiers' trust.

Journalists like to tell themselves that it is their rugged truth-telling, and bringing the truth of lost wars, etc. to the public through such devices as disturbing photos, that lets the public know what's really going on, and leads to bad wars becoming unpopular and ending. I wonder if that doesn't confuse correlation with causation, though. There will be no consequences in this case for Associated Press and other journalists, partly because, with the war trending down, soldiers need the journalists more than ever and have to put up with more of their liberties. Maybe it's the unpopularity of the war that leads to the graphic imagery, not the other way around.

Posted by BruceR at 10:52 PM

About Kunduz

Not much to say here about Kunduz that hasn't already been said. Obviously, the ISAF commander's room to criticize German actions or lack thereof is extremely circumscribed. In the middle of an election campaign, any open criticism could increase the likelihood of Germany withdrawing even further from the war than they already have. And in this case the "better than nothing" rule definitely applies.

You don't want to armchair quarterback this too much, either. As the official German press briefing makes clear*, there was other, non-public information that contributed to the decision to strike. The German local leadership were undoubtedly operating in a firm belief Taliban were on scene. And I have no reason to doubt some probably were. COMISAF's guidelines on rules of engagement apply to all nations: no one can opt out just because they're feeling threatened, or out of sorts; it follows they must have felt they had met those guidelines when they pulled the trigger.

We should be mindful, too, that many strikes that undoubtedly caused only insurgent casualties have been broadcast as hits on civilians. The Taliban are very adept at getting out their story very fast at the local level, in many cases generating street protests the next day, even in absolutely cut-and-dried situations. Numbers are also often exaggerated in the Afghan context. So people need to keep their skepticism filters on high here, pending a fuller investigation.

That said, the apparent inability to put eyes on a riverbed 4 km south of the Kunduz Airport base and 6 km south of the Kunduz PRT in any kind of timely fashion has to be a cause for concern. Not only did it contribute to the failure to discriminate civilians from insurgents in this instance, it doesn't bode well should, say, a large number of insurgents ever *really* gather in that vicinity, either. (For all the Germans know, they're there right now...)

There's a significant risk of "learned helplessness" when you're FOB-bound... one gets the feeling that, at least in German minds, the siege of Kunduz has begun, and is ongoing (note the reference to a mortar attack in the presser as justification for Gen. McChrystal not to be allowed to visit the site).

The other thing the presser refers to, a statement by the local Afghan leadership that all 54 individuals they claim were killed in the attack were, in fact, insurgents, needn't be ascribed too much weight. The ANSF don't have access to any intelligence methods the Coalition does not, and there's no indication either ANA or ANP ever had their own eyes-on, either. Pretty much everything they got to base their conclusions on, they will have gotten from the Germans or the Afghan media on this one.

The hidden issue here is the example it gives of the endemic lack of security force coordination, which is a problem throughout Afghanistan. If Kunduz is like most other provinces, the Coalition can't just call up the nearest Police Station or Afghan army base and ask them what they're seeing, or get them to send out a patrol... there's no real communications method to do so, other than cellphone-and-terp, no Afghan operations centre of any real significance to call, and no compunction on the Afghans' part to do anything just because you (or more accurately, your interpreter) would like them to. One suspects there wasn't even any real effort to involve the ANSF in this one, which could have been a problem if police or soldiers had been in the area anyway, given the apparent lack of Coalition eyes-on. The famous Afghan reluctance to go out at night doesn't *always* apply. It would be interesting to know what, if any, efforts at friendly force deconfliction were made here.

Deconfliction aside, that lack of coordination's not normally a limiter on our actions: there is rarely any requirement in our rules of engagement to get the approval of a local authority for kinetic strikes, be it the governor, the local army rep, or what have you. So the Germans wouldn't have done anything wrong, per se, by leaving the ANSF out. And because Afghans haven't generally been allowed into our operations centres or to see our aerial feeds, all the decisions in this case will have necessarily been 100% coalition. (Note how no one in any of the coverage so far bothers to explain how ANSF agencies would have been involved in the deliberation to strike, or suggests that they should have been.)

The Afghan soldier or police officer's perspective towards our actions in this respect is actually pretty similar to an Afghan civilian's: hearing a large explosion at night can mean the Taliban blowing something up, or the Coalition. To the average cop or soldier, t's all very random and unexplained. Even your superiors are unlikely to ever really get the whole truth of it and next morning you'll hear the two competing stories on the news along with everybody else. This leads, one imagines, to a learned helplessness of a different kind.

*No, I don't read German. Babel Fish gives you most of the key facts, though.

UPDATE: More here.

Posted by BruceR at 07:02 PM