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Mistaking Goats for the Taliban

On a hot day in the spring of 2008, my platoon manned a routine traffic control point in Eastern Afghanistan. It was us, a small group of Afghan Border Police, miles of empty countryside, and a trickle of civilian vehicles.

As soon as I got my men into position, I went to the nearest compound to set up an impromptu shura. After a bit of coaxing, I finally got the eldest male to come out of his dwelling. He matched the physical description of a key Taliban sub-commander, and he acted suspicious. He even told me his name--the same name as the Taliban sub-commander. (This may seem odd, but our battalion had already captured three known Taliban throughout the deployment, all because they used their real name. Afghans will lie for hours about what they do, but they always seem to use their real name. More on this interesting phenomena in future posts.)

Part of me was worried: the Taliban sub-commander I was looking for traveled with an entourage of 20-50 armed fighters. Luckily, we had an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) overhead. Linked to our Brigade headquarters, who had direct communication with my battalion headquarters, that in turn was linked to my company command post, who could talk to me on an FM radio, the UAV spotted the Taliban posse heading towards my position.

My commander radioed, “Destined 4-6, be prepared, Brigade says they spotted 100 Taliban moving towards your position. Current location at grid XXX-XXX.”

My platoon jumped into action, thankful that network-centric warfare had provided us the early warning.

What amazing technological network allowed this to happen? A variety of systems with equally convoluted acronyms: I plotted the Taliban position on a map system called the Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade-and-Below, or FBCB2. The FBCB2 links into another system called the Command Post of the Future, or CPoF. In addition to those two networks, every command post uses email, internet chat, and adobe chat. And to watch everything, the US Army has unmanned aerial vehicles; drones that can travel hundreds of miles, and hover over the battlefield for hours.

These networks allow Generals, Colonels, Lieutenant Colonels to (micro) manage fights in ways they never could before, as they were on that hot day in the spring of 2008.

As I worked with my company commander to identify the exact location of the Taliban entourage, my platoon sergeant got my men ready. My section sergeant put our sharpshooter in position, and repositioned the squad automatic weapon. My team leaders checked weapons and ammunition. We were on edge; we were ready.

I, meanwhile, checked the coordinates Brigade had relayed. I looked up. I checked again. I rechecked.

My platoon sergeant called me on the radio. “Sir, I don’t think those grid coordinates are correct.”

“No, they're right,” I replied. “The UAV is just looking at a herd of sheep.”

And so they were. "Network-centric" warfare isn't a panacea for counter-insurgency, or war in general. It doesn’t cut through fog of war, so much as allow the fog to creep up to levels previously unimaginable. The US Army constantly praises its small unit leaders for their initiative, but it then develops technology so that Generals can call in air strikes and micromanage the fight.

I don’t mean to discount all UAVs, or all communication advances, that combine to make our new "network" technology. But very few technologies have made life easier for the companies on the ground, the level where counter-insurgencies are waged. I'm not anti-technology; I am anti-micromanagement.

(A note on Operational Security: Many of the details in this story could be fleshed out because I have to keep some names and capabilities secret. I hope everyone understands. Also, this dialogue is not accurate but an approximation.)

twelve comments

Just wanted to re-iterate that we aren’t anti-technology or progress, just against the unfettered expansion without a thought for the implications. Just like how the army totally abuses email.

Ha! Though, I wish the title was more cryptic. It would’ve been funnier if I didn’t know what was coming.

The dialog is pretty close though.

Good point Matt about giving away the punchline in the title. And thanks for agreeing the dialogue is pretty close ben. Congrats on the SGT too.

So no falafel that day? (Since you didn’t engage on the sheep…)
Anyways still better than today’s Wikileak-video!
Really p… me off since nobody seems to like to stick to the facts and everybody seems to enjoy making the most of it.
Mind you, one of those innocent civilians might have had an RPG (they never really clarify that one!) and at least one of them was carrying an AK-47… and then of course Wikileads implies that they’ve been spied on and 2 people were assassinated…
but at the same time the accused general doesn’t even bother to take a close enough look at the video to find out that the correct information never had been passed on to them… all very strange and pretty hysteric!
What do you guys think?

@ Sarah – Yeah I heard about that video today. It really, really saddens me. War is so destructive, and ugly and brutal…

But what can we learn from it? Mainly that videos like this need to be made public so that the general public knows what it is like over there. Videos shouldnt be leaked, it makes you wonder if the military is hiding other stuff. I’m not say they are or aren’t, I just think it looks that way.

I’ll be reviewing this memoir (eventually) and I’ll have to cover this episode.

Reviewing which memoir? I must have missed something? Or is Michael writing one? Then I definitely missed that one!

Re the Wikileaks: I just had to point out a couple of things nobody seems to think of:

David Finkel wrote the book “Good Soldiers” and it happens to cover the Battalion these helicopters belonged to, and this incident is in the book. I might wait for the next edition to see what his notes on the event are.

Alright. Thanks for clarifying that!

So Eric, do you have an issue with Michael attempting to re-create dialogue here like you do in many of the memoirs you critique?

Well, that’s why we included the addendum at the end stating that the dialogue in inaccurate. It is also only two lines worth of dialogue, and some memoirs limit the dialogue, others have it go for pages and pages.

Yeah, I hate it, but had to do it stylistically.

More on dialogue: If I had to point out one literary debate I’ve been thinking the most about recently, it is convention vs. stylization. Grant Wood just wrote about this in the NYer. I mean, real life isn’t entertaining, but why lie? I don’t know.