Troops Need Not Shoot in Afghanistan

One major paradox of counterinsurgency warfare is that, to protect yourself, sometimes you must choose not to shoot.

This essential truth — codified in the U.S. military’s 2006 counterinsurgency manual and confirmed by the annals of history — is that you create new enemies faster than you eliminate existing ones when you unintentionally kill innocents.  

Army Gen. David Petraeus understands it. He and Marine Gen. James Amos wrote the counterinsurgency guide that emphasizes this key point. And Petraeus put it into effect in Iraq.

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal understands it, too.

He has directed his troops in Afghanistan not to request airpower support — except when under direct attack or when targets can be clearly identified as enemy combatants.  

But the U.S. military acquisition system continues to overlook this basic reality. Especially in regard to one key capability that could make a world of difference in Afghanistan today: nonlethal weaponry.

In recent days, NATO troops have again been accused of using lethal firepower to incapacitate a vehicle that ignored their signals to stop. It was, however, allegedly carrying only innocent civilians, not combatants.  

The truth behind this incident is still unclear. But NATO investigators have found few, if any, vehicles rigged with explosives among those shot at and rendered immobile by coalition forces over the past year.  

In other words, we usually fire on vehicles that do not pose any real threat to our forces or to Afghan civilians.  

Soldiers might be better off first shooting out the tires or the engine block. But given how limited time is once an approaching vehicle starts to look dangerous, the driver behind the windshield usually offers an easier target.  

Based on the movement of vehicles, as well as the jittery fingers of soldiers in danger and the properties of automatic weapons, other people in the vehicle are often shot as well. 

This is not to criticize troops who do the shooting. In most cases, they undoubtedly feel in mortal peril from vehicles that, in fact, have ignored warnings. These vehicles could well harbor people with malevolent intentions.

That NATO soldier on patrol is probably already jumpy because of the threat of unseen, yet lethal, roadside bombs. Far be it from a civilian, sitting in a comfortable Washington office, to criticize a soldier for making split-second decisions to use force when seeing what looks like an acute threat.

But if that soldier has only lethal options, it is natural that the soldier will use them. Sometimes, it might well be a soldier’s tactical mistake, but, more often, it is a natural and reasonable human reaction to being in danger. 

Commanders like Petraeus, McChrystal and Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, in Iraq, have coached their troops on withholding fire in many situations — as they should. But it is not realistic to expect this to apply in every situation. 

We owe our troops better choices.

In the mid-1990s, the Defense Department created the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program, under the U.S. Marine Corps, as well as decision directive 3000.3, to underscore the use and importance of nonlethal weaponry on the modern battlefield.

The experiences of U.S. forces in Somalia, among other areas, provided much of the impetus for this.

But for the next decade, the nonlethal weaponry effort was funded at a paltry $20 million to $40 million a year, barely enough to carry out fledgling R&D and certainly not enough to buy any material in significant quantities.

A 2004 Council on Foreign Relations task force called for increasing this budget. It is now closer to $150 million a year.

But compare that to $100 billion a year in total war costs; $80 billion a year in total Pentagon research, development, test and evaluation money; and $5 billion a year in spending for vehicles and other technologies to counter roadside bombs.

This $150 million is not even enough for a vigorous research program, much less a crash effort at fielding promising technologies. Which is what these circumstances warrant.

In this day and age, it should be possible to stop suspicious vehicles without killing the drivers. Modern technology should be able to provide ways to do this. Yet we haven’t solved the riddle.

An elegant solution could be “radio frequency” weapons that can fry the electronics of the vehicles.

But it is not clear that these are ready for widespread use with infantry troops. Big power requirements mean that the systems are still large and unwieldy.

Some existing nonlethal technologies — such as netting, tire spikes, acoustic weapons and sticky foams — are better for controlling mobs on foot, or impeding vehicles at checkpoints, than for an unexpected incident with an approaching vehicle at an unanticipated location.

We do not yet know what the right solution could be.

Better tire spike technologies that could span greater ranges and incapacitate vehicles over an appreciable diameter may be one possible solution.

More powerful acoustic weapons or flash weapons that could be fired at a vehicle to create a dazzling and distracting light might be other choices. It is now hard to say.

What is clear, however, is that spending $150 million a year to address this problem is woefully inadequate.

Despite McChrystal’s remarkable personal commitment to this, we are still seeing far too many cases of inadvertent killings of innocents in Afghanistan.

These cases stoke up anger among the population, poison dialogue with the Afghan government and put the entire mission’s success at risk.

It is late in the game to take this problem seriously, but it is not too late.

Rather than ask our troops to make a choice between being at risk and taking actions that could kill innocent Afghans and set back the war effort, we should give them the tools they need to do their job.