« A Tale of Two MEDCAPs… | Home | The Revolution Will B… »

A Tale of Two Medcaps Pt II

Yesterday, I described two patrols conducted by my company in Afghanistan. In the first, our humanitarian assistance was gladly received and the mission was a wild success. In the second, an IED killed a US soldier, wounded two others and failed to help the local population. Today, I want to discuss the lessons both military folks, and the public at large, can learn from these two operations.

When we experience failures as a military, like the second MEDCAP, our leadership is prepared to dismiss so-called non-kinetic operations. One failure erases ten successes. This is a mistake. Instead of dismissing civil action projects as useless because of one failure, we ought to see how we can improve their effectiveness. The following are the lessons I think we should take away from these two MEDCAPs and their different outcomes.

(One note as well, I do not hold the platoon leader who ran the second MEDCAP to blame. I respect him for trying to influence the population in a positive way even though he did not succeed.)

First, no mission or area of operations in Afghanistan is simple. A huge number of factors influence every patrol, every mission and every campaign in Afghanistan. Whether it be the Taliban (AAF), coalition forces, the population at large, the Afghanistan National Security Forces, or even the terrain itself; anything can either hurt or harm the outcome of counter-insurgency efforts. Acknowledging the complexity of our mission in Afghanistan leads to a simple conclusion: plan your missions with the best intelligence possible. And even when you've gathered all the intelligence you possibly can, even when you've gone over the plan ten times, and even after numerous rehearsals, keep planning and gathering intelligence.

Second, counter-insurgency missions are still combat missions. Soldiers and leaders must never forget that. Both of our missions show this universal truth. Luckily, most of the US Army has learned this and leaders of all branches try to grill combat thinking into their troops. The Marine Corps understands this truth even better than the Army with their philosophy "every soldier a riflemen" that existed before the war on terror began. (For those who know me personally and believe I have just committed an act of heresy, I'll begrudgingly admit the Marine Corps does have some positives.)

Third, fifteen miles can make a dramatic difference in Afghanistan. I wrote an entire post about this, but members of the military still forget this all the time. Literally, fifteen miles up one valley can mean changes in the culture, the demographics, and the economic capabilities of an area. These changes help the Taliban and inhibit the US because they understand the subtle differences in Afghan culture and we don't. This makes designing operations or choosing between different courses of action extremely difficult.

Fourth,  MEDCAPs--humanitarian or soft demonstrations of power--cannot be forced on a population. Afghans can tell when coalition forces care, and when they are doing what they are simply supposed to. Thus, MEDCAPs should both be run by Afghan Security Forces and actually wanted by the population. Afghan and coalition forces should wait until they are invited into a community, not force aid on villages.

Fifth, American infantry soldiers enjoy fighting. The counter-insurgency fight should really be run by non-profits, diplomats, intelligence officers and police. Yet, we use infantrymen—those who define themselves as “dedicated infantry combat killers.” When we employ grunts to demonstrate soft power, we run a huge risk. For example, the second MEDCAP occurred in a valley that had endured nearly constant fighting for the last year. That close fighting, and the losses associated with it, made it very hard for our soldiers to want to help the population. As a coalition force, we need to run these missions; but we need to staff these patrols with other people besides infantrymen. This may seem to contradict my second point, but the differences are subtle. While every patrol is a combat patrol, and should be ready to fight to defend itself, some people in the Army live to fight and others support the fight. That latter group needs to run humanitarian missions, not the group dedicated to fighting.

As I said earlier, I wasn’t on both MEDCAPs. I can't definitively speak to why one mission succeeded and the other ended in tragedy. Simply put, the coalition tried to help the population, and the Taliban or insurgents in the Chowkay valley decided to attack my company as we left. In a series of days, our company both influenced the local population successfully and suffered a tragic defeat. Whether the attack cost us more than the successful MEDCAP gained is something we will never know.

five comments

I gotta say that point number four seems really counter-intuitive to me, and is not the way I looked at COIN. Really strange idea, but I think I agree. The only thing I can relate it to is the french trying to hnad out bread and cheese after they torture the people of the casbah.

One failure in this case should especially not erase ten successes because it’s not a combat operation. It’s not as though your enemy is adjusting to your tactics, people simply weren’t treated because of fear. Fear will not forever trump win out over mercy.

Yes, but in the political calculus of Afghanistan, losing soldiers will cost us in the long run. Losing soldiers makes America war weary, and that loss can sometimes over take the victory.

@ MC – This debate just came up in the sixty minutes piece this sunday…

Unfortunate it is debated on 60 minutes at all when it is the more effective strategy.

I never thought I would say it, but sometimes we have to let Generals be Generals.