Afghanistan: Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham

Watching BBC News every morning, I am reminded by promos that BBC America is now showing Robin Hood every Saturday night through the fall, and it led me to reflect on the fates of Robin and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin is an everlasting hero, while the Sheriff is condemned to eternal villainy. Of course it's the winners who write the history, but still, in recent days it's made me think about the way war in Afghanistan is being fought.

Last week, I watched a Department of Defense film of two Afghans blowing themselves up as they attempted to stick an IED in the middle of a road. An Apache helicopter had been hovering overhead, getting ready to blow them up, when the bomber's own carelessness did them in. The DOD anchor also reported that two American servicemen had been killed by an IED in southern Afghanistan. It was two of ours for two of theirs.

That's when I thought of Robin Hood and the Sheriff. Each Apache helicopter cost $18 million in 1996. It's equipped with laser guided Hellfire missiles, which cost $58,000 each. It may be carrying Hydra 70 rockets, which are much less costly, but much less accurate. (We were spared the costs of a Hellfire missile or Hydra rockets last week when the obliging potential bombers blew themselves up). The IED that killed the two American servicemen probably cost less than $100.

According to legend, the Sheriff of Nottingham sent posses of knights in shining armor into Sherwood Forrest to search for Robin Hood. And, again according to the legend, Robin Hood and his archers gave at least as good as they got. Their homemade bows and arrows held off their mounted armored enemies, inflicting heavy casualties. Like the Taliban, Robin's forces melted back into the civilian population after every battle.

Obviously, the Afghanistan war is far more costly to us than it is to the Taliban. And, as mentioned here previously, the Pentagon has just chosen Oshkosh Defense to manufacture thousands of new, much improved, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) specifically designed for the war in Afghanistan. The new MRAP, the M1117, is an off-road all-terrain vehicle, lighter, more mobile, and well designed for urban operations. The MRAPs we used in Iraq, mostly Cougars, were heavier and more likely to tip over. In Afghanistan, they have proven even less reliable. Again, obviously we need a better armored vehicle, and for now, the Oshkosh version is it. It is specifically designed to travel over the mountains and sands of Afghanistan, and it will undoubtedly save many lives. Nevertheless, this safety measure does not come cheap. Under the terms of the Oshkosh contract, each vehicle will cost us more than $1.3 million and we expect to order 10,000 of them. That's more than $13 billion.

So, back to the legend of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham: His men in armor lost the battle to Robin Hood's bows and arrows. Will the new MRAPs enable us to hold the Taliban at bay? The Army had first issued a request for purchase (RFP) for them on Monday, December 8, 2008, just about a month after Barack Obama had been elected President. Throughout his campaign, Obama had said that if elected he would decrease our troops in Iraq and increase them in Afghanistan. The Iraq war had been a war of choice, but the Afghanistan war was a war of necessity; we had to prevent it from again becoming an al Qaeda base.

It seems as if it was only after Obama was elected and the DOD believed we might be actually be sending additional troops that it finally responded to a previous urgent request from commanders in Afghanistan for "an off-road mission profile" vehicle. The generals needed it because of "the country's absolutely atrocious to nonexistent road network." Five bidders responded to the RFP, and in late June, Oshkosh was declared the winner and got the order. Oshkosh had delivered 96 vehicles by August 25th of this year. They are currently being tested by the Army and the Marines, who, according to Marine General Michael Brogin, expect some reworking of the vehicles "because at the last minute we changed the configuration." But Brogin says that he is very comfortable that some vehicles will be delivered to Afghanistan in October, but "the sooner we can get that final design into the hands of Oshkosh" the more likely it will be. He added, however, that "the time for fielding [the vehicle] is less clear." (Fielding means actually using them in the field).

This week, I found myself in the company of a recently discharged soldier who had served a year in Iraq and a year in Afghanistan. He was the lone survivor of an IED blast that overturned the Stryker in which he was riding. I asked him how many men it would take to win the war in Afghanistan. He said that even twenty times as many couldn't do it. The terrain was so difficult, and the Taliban were so fanatic, that even with a million troops the insurgency would continue in some areas. I asked him if we should get out, and he said no. He said whatever central government there was would need our support and the ordinary people needed some sort of infrastructure that he hoped we would build for them. He said that in Afghanistan his unit was assigned to building schools and other improvements, and that they came under fire almost every day. Nevertheless, he felt it had to be done.

I have been trying to reconcile his words with my Afghanistan/Robin Hood analogy. It's certainly fair to say that England became a better place after King John signed the Magna Carta and Richard the Lionhearted returned. Robin was on Richard's side, and the Sheriff was appointed King John, so history says Robin's battle was righteous. I doubt that history will ever say that about the Taliban. (Unless, of course, Islamic extremism is triumphant and it's Islamists who write the history). It seems to me that we are fighting for the right cause but in the wrong manner. We are following in the footsteps of the Sheriff of Nottingham when we try, again and again, to build better, sometimes heavier, sometimes lighter, vehicles to protect troops on the ground from IEDs and RPGs.

It took us years to go from Humvees to Strykers to Cougars, each an improvement over the other, and none enough of an improvement to enable us to win either war or to ensure the safety of the men and women fighting for us. It will be a full year after the Presidential election before we get the new armored vehicle into Afghanistan, and to see if that will prevent some of the casualties that have left, as of September 19th, just under 40,000 American troops dead, lamed or otherwise wounded.

As I write this, President Obama is making a decision about whether sending more troops to Afghanistan will help our efforts or hurt them. General McChrystal and Chief of Staff Michael Mullen have made clear that they believe we need more troops immediately, and Mullen said that, "The biggest threat we have right now are these Improvised Explosive Devices that they are planting in a terrain much different than Iraq." Secretary of Defense Gates says, according to his spokesman, "We have to provide more counter-IED capabilities to our forces in Afghanistan as soon as possible." They want more men and more equipment.

Congress is not on the same page. InsideDefense writes that the House Armed Services Committee has cut $100 million from the funding of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), while the Senate does not want to finance it at all, but instead wants to shift it to a contingency war package which may be used for other purposes. We seem locked by Pentagon contractual bureaucracy, Congressional and DOD squabbling and Presidential rethinking. Nothing has been decided, nothing has been accomplished.
In September 25th's New York Times, David Brooks writes that we seem to be obsessed with "the illusion of the easy path...the illusion, which gripped Donald Rumsfeld and now grips many Democrats, that you can fight counterinsurgency war with a light missiles...special operations...unmanned drones." He continues to say that the Pentagon's Old Guard believes "that you can fight a force like the Taliban by keeping your troops mostly in bases, and then sending them out in well-armored convoys to kill bad guys." That's Robin Hood versus the Sheriff.

Brooks' middle path, what he calls "the full counterinsurgency doctrine," is the only one that will succeed because it "puts population protection at the center of the Afghanistan mission." This doctrine requires "small groups of American men and women [to go] outside the wire in dangerous places to remote valleys, protecting security, gathering intelligence, helping to establish courts and building schools and roads." That's what the Afghan veteran that I was talking to this week said he was doing on his tour of duty when he came under fire every day.
I would like to propose that we consider another strategy -- strategic bombing. Strategic bombing worked in the Kosovo War when the strategic bombing of Belgrade and other Serbian infrastructure forced Prime Minister Milosevic to withdraw Serbian troops from Kosovo and leave it under the control of NATO. The New York Times reported that as the war began, "Milosevic boasted that a high-technology bombing war would never force Serbian soldiers out of Kosovo. 'You are not willing to sacrifice lives to achieve our surrender,'" he said. "Yet without one combat casualty," The Times continued, "the American-led NATO alliance has proved Mr. Milosevic wrong ... his government has unwillingly become the first case study in how precision weaponry, overwhelming resources and a steely willingness to keep bombing can compel victory -- all without risking soldiers on the ground."

I suppose the chief objection to the above strategy would be that Afghanistan presents no strategic targets -- it has none of the infrastructure of Belgrade, no bridges or factories or power stations to bomb. I think the poppy fields of Afghanistan, which currently supply both 90% of the world's opium, and much of the funding for both the Taliban and the corrupt Karzai government, make up a strategic target. For once, we'd be using our billion dollar bombers and our million dollar bombs on billion dollar targets.

The destruction of the poppy fields would cripple whatever is left of the Afghan economy. No longer could the Afghan drug-merchants based in Iran share their income with the Taliban. No longer would the Taliban have funds to buy the RPGs and shaped IEDs that blow up our MRAPs. No longer could the Taliban pay fifty or a hundred dollars to those who dig holes for the IEDs or to the families of suicide bombers. On the other hand, no longer could President Karzai's brother and some other of his supporters profit from their drug dealing.

Perhaps strategic bombing wouldn't work, but I sure think we ought to try very hard and use every non-nuclear weapon in our arsenal before we send a million men to Afghanistan -- and that's the number my friend the veteran said it would take to bring reasonable stability to a notoriously volatile population -- a population that does not yet constitute a stable nation.

As for Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham -- this is the first time I'm on the Sheriff's side.