We’re repeating the mistakes of Vietnam

I am loathe to criticize a war in progress lest I encourage the enemy, but I believe America is failing our troops in Afghanistan just as we did in Vietnam.

One percent of our population serving in the armed forces does our dangerous work for us while we continue our lives in comfort, free to focus on our 401(k) balance and whether our kids get into the best school. While these troops serve year-long deployments three, four, five or six times and their luck wears thinner each time in combat, their families pay an awful price in separation, anxiety and financial sacrifice.

What do we owe them besides the inadequate paycheck they receive? I believe we owe them our fidelity, our solemn commitment not to spend their limbs and lives with indifference as we did in Vietnam. That means we should stay out of wars unless and until we are committed to the overwhelming force required to win quickly with minimal American casualties. That means we should not ask them to fight halfway wars that go on and on while our casualties mount.

Consider our counter-insurgency, or COIN, strategy in Afghanistan, designed to gain the good will of the Afghan people by protecting them, to promote allegiance to their central government, our ally, in hopes of building a stable and friendly regime. This is not easy to do while our enemies, well informed on our strategy, use Afghans as human shields to cause the very civilian casualties we seek to avoid. More to the point, fighting with restraint raises the risk to our combat troops.

I know that our troops are the best equipped, trained and combat experienced ever, and Gen. David Petraeus is highly capable, the man who literally wrote the book on COIN. But even if his COIN strategy works, my concern remains. Consider a few examples of the restrictive Rules of Engagement, or ROE, that handicap our troops in the battlefield and promote the kind of hesitation that can increase U.S. casualties.

Afghanistan ROE require the enemy’s weapon to be in view in order to return fire in the vicinity of civilians. That means fire clearly coming out of a home is not enough justification to shoot back if the weapon cannot be seen. Taliban troops know they can shoot at American troops from cover, throw down their weapon and then stand safely in plain view.

Lawyers are in the approval chain for close air support and artillery support of our ground troops, support that is denied if civilian homes are nearby, never mind consequences to our own troops.

In early June near Kandahar, in a night ambush on a U.S. convoy all the U.S. troops could see were muzzle flashes, and they waited for clearance to fire. By the time an officer radioed orders to return fire, the enemy had disappeared, well schooled in how to take pot shots and then run while the silly Americans hesitate to shoot back.

As shown in a cockpit video, in early 2010 a remote U.S. outpost was under night attack by Taliban forces while an Apache helicopter had in its infrared sights a tight formation of 14 heavily armed Taliban, climbing the mountain to join the fight against U.S. defenders. The pilot called for clearance to fire, “They are now 200 meters from the closest Kalat [civilian house], still in a tight group with their weapons. Requesting clearance to fire, over.” While the enemy advanced on U.S. forces the approving authority required additional checks and assurances of civilian safety six times over a 10-minute period, before finally giving clearance to fire on the enemy.

If that doesn’t sound too onerous to safeguard civilian lives, imagine your son is one of those U.S. troops and desperately waiting for air support, then watch the second hand on a clock pass for 10 minutes.

In early July, U.S. troops near Kandahar were under blistering mortar fire by an enemy they could see in the distance. They radioed a request for retaliatory air strikes or to let them return the mortar fire. Permission was denied because of mud huts near the enemy that might be occupied by civilians.

Four decades ago we were constrained from winning in Vietnam by limitations on borders we could not cross, clearances we had to have to fire on the enemy, key enemy assets we could not hit, enemy supply lines we could not destroy, enemy heartland we could not overfly and so on. This “limited war” turned Vietnam into a drawn-out meat grinder that needlessly ate many thousands of American lives.

We are smarter now, but it seems we are making similar mistakes, sacrificing American lives to fight a kinder, gentler war. We have raised two generations now that never learned the lesson that war is a nasty business that is best concluded quickly by overwhelming force, that collateral damage can be reduced but not avoided and that we should never give a thought to a fair fight.

The effect of COIN in Afghanistan is reflected in the casualty statistics — in 2009 Afghan civilian casualties were way down while U.S. casualties were way up. Petraeus promises a review of Afghanistan ROE, but our current strategy removes decisions from the on-site commander in combat, strips the best troops in the world of their combat instinct and judgment and sometimes withholds combat support when they are in trouble; that is not only dangerous and demoralizing, it can’t be repaired with tweaks.

Can we use COIN to build a corruption-free and friendly civilization in Afghanistan where there has never been one? Personally, I have doubts no matter how long we stay, no matter how much we spend. But even if I am dead wrong and it works, I am still unwilling to put the lives of Afghans higher on the priority list than our own troops to do it.

Maybe I’m a dinosaur, but it seems to me if the COIN strategy in Afghanistan is worth a national priority that raises the number of Americans coming home in a flag-draped box, then to keep faith with our troops we should all share that risk, all of America’s sons and daughters should be part of the pool from which those at risk are drawn. Only then will we all be at war.

Until then, just 1 percent of us are at war, and we are doing them wrong.

Terry Garlock of Peachtree City was a Cobra helicopter gunship pilot in the Vietnam War, where he earned the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Distinguished Flying Cross.