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On Not Shooting Back

Back in April, I wrote a post about the Afghanistan National Army and the Afghanistan National Police facing off against each other in front of my convoy. The point of that post was that the success of our military adventure in Afghanistan will depend on whether or not the ANP can enforce law and order. Defeating the Taliban will rely on Afghan initiative more than anything else, although the quality of US training and support can go a long way to making them competent.

The following story gives you an idea of how seriously NATO took training the ANP back in 2008:

In my little part of Afghanistan, the job of training the Afghanistan National Police fell to a platoon of Military Police (MP). They had a huge area to cover, an entire province. They may have been reserve or National Guard, I don’t remember. We were supposed to provide security to the police stations, but not training. MPs know police work; my guys knew how to move, shoot and communicate.

When we arrived in Destined Company’s AO, the other PLs and the CO told me about a possible ambush site on the road from FOB Fortress (our home base) to Asadabad (another FOB/city). It was still active for many of the convoys that went through it, but not for us. For the eight months I drove past the spot not once did the enemy shoot at us. We had a specific weapon system we always rolled out with--the TOW missile--and the insurgents didn’t want anything to do with it.

One day--we were about thirty minutes from rolling out--we heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire. My men hadn’t been in a firefight in a while--they were itching for a fight-- and this sounded like the opportunity.

We hit the trucks, we rolled out, and the company relayed via the radios that the MP platoon was in contact. As we headed to the ambush site, my section sergeant pointed out that he hadn’t heard the unmistakable sounds of a fifty caliber machine gun. Then we saw the MP platoon flying past us. We figured out that they were going to the Fortress, but we headed to the ambush site to try to catch the insurgents.

By the time we got there, the insurgents were long gone. (Ambushes don’t last long unless they are wildly successful.) Even though we got there about 15 minutes after it started, there was nothing to be found.

So we returned to base to fing out what had happened, and to figure out why the MPs had barely shot back. The patrol leader told us that their fifty caliber machine gun had jammed. One of our Soldiers offered to check it out.

He quickly realized they were right, they had a jammed fifty caliber machine gun. But the reason it was jammed was...peculiar. A fifty caliber machine gun can be set up to load on either the left or right side. But if you set it up to fire from the left or right, the ammo can has to be set up on that side as well. The MP platoon had a right fed machine gun loaded from the left. That is a weapon that will never fire.

Why were improperly trained men even on the battlefield? Why were they training the police of Afghanistan? This is a good leadership lesson for all soldiers: like the Marine Corps “every Marine is a rifleman policy”, all Soldiers in the Army are Soldiers first. Basic Soldiering, like the ability to load and maintain a .50 Caliber machine gun, is something no unit should lack.

nine comments

I can’t help but think this is what happens A) when you deplete your trooops after years of fighting in two wars, which leads to B) unprepared and ill equipped men.

Sure- the soldier should know how to operate the weapon…but I’d be more frustrated at the three other people (at least) that (should have) checked the gunner/weapon out before hand.

Lazy leadership.

Ironically that platoon probably complained about the ANP being lazy and taking short cuts.

I fail to see how one could come to the conclusion that an MP would cause his 50 cal to have a failure to feed because the U.S. has troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maybe the guy was scared, maybe it was his first time on the battlefield and despite his training he “choked.” Maybe he had 2 hours sleep or his wife sent him a “Dear John” letter.

Who knows.

So much for being “proficient” in his “warrior tasks and drills.”

“Every Marine a rifleman” is an excellent doctrine, and – particularly in this new iteration of warfare where it’s not just the combat arms branches that are actually seeing combat – “Every soldier is actually a soldier” should be the Army’s mantra. And, though you would think (or not, depending on your particular level of skepticism) that the Army would be placing extra emphasis on this in recent years, unfortunately it’s not the case. Recently TRADOC decided to greatly reduce the number of “mandatory” tasks and battle drills for soldiers to know. Doesn’t exactly seem like a step in the right direction.

But honestly: considering the fact that soldiers in Afghanistan frequently engage the enemy at distances exceeding half a kilometer, and yet basic rifle marksmanship only trains soldiers to hit targets at 300m, is it really surprising that a non-infantry/cav/armor soldier might not know how to properly operate an M2? Obviously not the most fantastic comparison, but you get my point.

@ Jon: “Ironically that platoon probably complained about the ANP being lazy and taking short cuts.” I would bet money on it.

p.s. Also, though not directly relating to the issue at hand, to address the points brought up about improper training and lazy leadership: http://bit.ly/aPZP2S

Also Eric – I have to disagree with you. Though there could be many reasons for this particular “malfunction,” “years of fighting in two wars” is almost certainly not one of them.

However I won’t disagree with you on your “ill-equipped” remark – although I do believe that fighting two wars is only one component of that problem.

I was referring to the fact that they were either national guard or reserve units, and those units weren’t designed to really be deployed. To be a reserve Soldier, you only have to serve 38 days of military service, and people who join the Army reserves do that not expect to deploy for 15 months.

The fact America called up so many reserve units was a big controversy at the start of the Iraq war and I think even in 2007, 2008 and 2009 we are still seeing its effects.

Calling the reserves did cause a lot of political heat. While I could imagine how difficult that would be, to have your reserve unit called up, at the same time they did know what they were in for should it one day come to that.

These people had perhaps a tougher job in that many weren’t prepared, their lives were not organized in such a way so as to withstand a long deployment, and their families had trouble adjusting.


Basically the Army is over worked, suicide rates, drug use and indiscipline are all up because our Military is in two prolonged wars in two countries. The lack of education for these Soldiers is symptomatic of that problem.

I remember that day…epic leadership fail. The multiple deployments and wars should mean that soldiers are even more prepared for combat operations, not the other way around. Anyhow, this is a dead post, but quite a funny moment.