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The Reality of Restraint

Old Sweat

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The following story from the Toronto Star is reproduced under the Fair Comment provisions of the Copyright Act.

Frustrated Canadian soldiers are killing time, more than TalibanStrict rules of engagement restrict troop tactics: ‘Our mission is not to provide fire support. It is to be prepared to provide fire support’ 
By Paul Watson
Star Columnist
PANJWAI DISTRICT, AFGHANISTAN—Seconds after the command “Guns! Guns! Guns!” crackled over the loudspeakers, Canadian soldiers were swarming around their howitzers, preparing to open fire.

One shouted coordinates, others cranked hard to get the long barrel up and precisely aimed. Another placed a hand-held computer over the tip of a 155 mm shell to feed blast instructions to a memory chip in the fuse.

Then they loaded the round, weighing close to 45 kilos, into the breech – putting one in the pipe, in soldier slang.

Gunner Alberto Basallo, 26, of Toronto, stood to the side of the hulking weapon with a rope lanyard limply cradled in his hands.

Yanking it tight would send a shell with a kill radius measured in metres hurtling through the desert air with the speed of a rifle shot.

Muscles taut, everyone waited as a forward observation officer’s request for artillery fire, against a group of insurgents spotted to the east, worked its way up the chain of command.

It is a ritual the unit knows too well: Rush to the brink of lethal force, stop short and wait while combat officers, sometimes even military lawyers, study the target from somewhere unseen, weigh the risks of injuring or killing civilians along with insurgents, and make the final call.

Adrenalin pumping, B Troop killed time by the big gun with anxious small talk.

One marvelled at how a camel spider, its body almost as big as a man’s thumb, with legs as long as fingers, tore apart a scorpion in a cardboard box death match the other night.

The loudspeaker interrupted. The chatter stopped.

“Unload,” ordered the gunners’ commander, Lieutenant Colin McConnell. “End of mission.”

Like air rushing out of a balloon, the unit’s spirit deflated.

“Same old show,” a soldier grumbled as he did the drudge work of standing down, for the nth time.

The gunners and bombardiers in B Troop, D Battery, of the 1st Royal Canadian Regiment battle group, are not hungry to kill. But they do want to win this war against an increasingly aggressive and inventive enemy.

And like many foreign troops putting their lives on the line in southern Afghanistan, Canadian soldiers often feel they’re fighting with one hand tied behind their back.

Canadian and other U.S.-led NATO combat troops are told to avoid civilian casualties at all costs under a counter-insurgency strategy that stresses the need to make civilians feel secure from intimidation by Taliban and allied fighters.

In theory, that’s supposed to separate the insurgents from civilian support and cover. In Panjwai district, where Canadian troops acknowledge large no-go areas under tight Taliban control, many Afghans work both sides of the fence to survive.

The military’s strict rules of engagement allow Western soldiers to shoot in self-defence, but when insurgents open fire, it’s usually in hit-and-run operations.

They can quickly retreat to villages, or through farmers’ fields, where the insurgents’ most deadly weapons, such as booby-trapped jugs, cooking pots and other improvised explosive devices, lie in wait for any soldiers who follow on foot.

McConnell’s soldiers think they if they had more time in the fight, they could make it a lot harder for the enemy to move around and prepare to kill.

The Toronto-born lieutenant is known as “Doc.” He has a PhD from Liverpool University in biomechanics, which McConnell describes as biology explained in terms of physics and engineers.

He is a smart man, who has been a soldier most of his life since he signed up at the Moss Park Armoury as a teenager. He demands precision.

And his unit goes to great lengths to be confident that they can provide pinpoint fire that minimizes the risk of civilian casualties, which make it easier for insurgents to turn Afghans against foreign forces.

B Troop has its own weatherman, Master Corporal Charles Loykowski, 49, of Pembroke, Ontario, who sends up helium-filled balloons several times a day to measure factors like wind speed, air pressure and humidity that affect a shell’s trajectory.

The information is fed into the unit’s targeting computers, which even compensate for the distance the Earth rotates in the seconds an artillery shell takes to arc through the air and strike ground.

“Have you ever dropped a rock down a well or a deep hole?” the lieutenant asked, by way of explanation. “The rock seems to curve and hit the wall as it goes down.

“Well it’s not. The rock’s going in a straight line toward the centre of the earth. And the earth is turning. The wall is getting closer to the rock.”

Science has made modern artillery so accurate that one of B Troop’s Howitzers recently fired a smoke round into the small crater caused by the shot fired from another nearby gun—at almost the same time.

And time is often the gunners’ worst enemy.

When the soldiers loaded to fire explosive rounds this week, the insurgents they were targeting moved while the gunners waited for the request to shoot slowly worked its way up the chain of command.

There were a lot of soldiers swearing. They know it is their job to follow orders that come from far above their pay scale, but they still gripe about the ones that make no sense to them.

They also train for hours in desert dust blown by a blast furnace wind, practising in sandbagged mortar pits to make sure they’re on target, and fast, dropping for push-ups to focus minds when they’re as little as a millimetre off.

When their weapons and war-fighting skills don’t get used, they wonder if the insurgents’ offensive is more effective because the long-promised NATO offensive is too timid.

Rear Admiral Bob Davidson, a senior strategic planner at national defence headquarters, touched gingerly on the issue during a visit to this front line base Wednesday. He asked McConnell and his troops when they last fired. A week earlier, a soldier replied.

“Our mission is not to provide fire support. It is to be prepared to provide fire support,” McConnell pointed out.

“That can be frustrating in itself,” Davidson said diplomatically, reading the soldiers’ minds.

Signs of shaky discipline further up the combat chain of command haven’t helped ease concerns on the front lines that the wheels may be coming off the war effort.

First, Canadian commander Brigadier-General Daniel Menard was relieved of duty in the war zone, and is still under investigation, for allegedly having sex with a master corporal while he was sending troops into battle.

Then, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander of American, Canadian and other NATO troops in Afghanistan, was fired this week for trash-talking his boss, the President of the United States, and colleagues in front of a Rolling Stone reporter.

They’re things that cross a soldier’s mind during the long hours B Troop spends manning a hilltop observation post with a 360-degree view of the farmers’ fields clinging to the Arghandab River’s banks, and the desert beyond.

To the west, the Taliban are in firm control of no man’s land. The troops see armed men, presumed to be insurgents, openly meeting in nearby villages, where Canadian soldiers don’t go.

Insurgents move so freely around a front line base that they are able to plant improvised explosive devices on the dirt road leading to the front gate, and regularly take pot shots at passing convoys or low-flying helicopters.

An army officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence on insurgents and local tribal politics, defended the strategy of restraint as a crucial weapon against insurgent “information operations,” sometimes called propaganda.

“Say there’s four insurgents, and the good gun commander here gets orders to fire and those four insurgents get killed, and a piece of shrapnel the size of a hubcap decapitates a 12-year-old kid standing by,” the officer said.

“At that point, the four insurgents who were killed are forgotten. What’s highlighted is that 12-year-old kid.”

Bad kills mean bad news, which can turn victory into defeat. And as much as an artillery gunner may want to turn an insurgent into pink mist, commanders have to calculate the risks of losing hearts and minds.

“Make no mistake about it,” he added, “we’ve had incidents a kilometre and a half from here where there’s been pink mist. And we’ll have plenty more incidents in the next six months.”
 

The Bread Guy

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Interesting piece - thanks for sharing.

Curious what you (and others who are/have been with the guns) have to say, OS, about this bit:
‘Our mission is not to provide fire support. It is to be prepared to provide fire support’ 
 

Old Sweat

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One could phrase it either way. What the lieutenant means is that the current ROE prevent engaging the enemy in most circumstances. The posture could be seen to be less aggressive, I guess, because there is a difference between providing support and being prepared to provide support.

Back in 2007, there was a story written about the same troop - B Troop, D Battery - supporting an allied unit. At that time the troop was doing a lot of firing and killing a lot of Taliban. It seems to me that there are just as many enemy around, if not more, but the rules have changed. Going back even earlier, 1 PPCLI Battle Group in 2006 was refused permission to engage the school house with artillery and air because it was perceived that there were civilians nearby. At the time the Patricias were heavily engaged and taking casualties. I would hope this kind of thing will not happen again.
 

The Bread Guy

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It really is a tough balance, with the scales tipping now towards "if in doubt, avoid civilian casualties at all costs."  Understand the longer term benefits, but you clearly point out the other costs.
 

GAP

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But it is, and it's worse.....

In one of the articles I posted this week, troops (US) talk of having to step into the clear to draw the Taliban out of hiding during a firefight, otherwise Air would not drop their ordinance, unless they could see them....
 
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