Afghan Railroad Express

Recent comments by a top U.S. official regarding civilian casualties in the fight for Afghanistan stand in stark contrast to actions surrounding similar events just two years ago that led to the banishment of Marine Corps special operations units from the beleaguered nation.

The U.S. may be falling victim to superior enemy information operations.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen said publicly that the killing of civilians during aerial bombings May 4 in Farah Province jeopardizes U.S. success in the nation. (Ya think?) Mullen’s restraint might have belied the screaming, pacing, and hand-wringing that took place privately. Surely sorting out the actual civilian noncombatant casualties from the Taliban has proved no easy task. (It was announced within the hour that “government” estimates peg civilian casualties at 140. U.S. investigators say two to three dozen. You do the math.)

Despite Mullen’s paternal declaration, “Our (probable) bad,” we don’t see entire units (or services) tossed from Afghanistan for collateral damage, nor should they be. But it appears this has not always been the case. …

Flash back to March 4, 2007. A Marine special operations company new to the territory was operating in Afghanistan and was caught in a fire fight. The local military investigation of the incident conflicts with the Marine Corps account. A court of inquiry later convened to sort out the matter. The latter agreed the boys were taking fire and acted appropriately. The Afghans say 19 noncombatant civilians were killed, though those numbers have come under scrutiny.

Five days later, the same boys of MSOC-F allegedly were operating without proper authority. (Not true, the COI later determined.) Within several days, the whole company was sent packin’ back to Kuwait. Army Col. John Nicholson, the commander for Task Force Spartan, and his boss Lt, Gen. Francis H, Kearny (the current deputy commander of U.S. Special Forces Command) said they had lost faith in the unit. Nicholson made some questionable public comments about the unit and this May 4 incident (something about “deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry”)m enraging Corps Commandant Gen. James T Conway. In May he referred to the Marines as “cowboys.” Nicholson, now a baby brigadier, is back in southern Afghanistan as deputy commander, regional command south, and still chattin’ it up with the press.

There have been deadly incidents before May 4 and there will be more in the future. One of the biggest problems according to one intelligence officer who has served in Afghanistan is that Taliban and al-Qaida information operations capabilities far exceed those of the U.S. These foes quickly and effectively convince the public that U.S. forces are responsible for anything that might go wrong — fatalities, mishaps, you name it. This information (at best) often is misleading and more often untrue but the people believe it, even when it might be Taliban forces responsible for the harm caused.

So, yes, killing the people one purports to help probably sends some mixed messages and can work against, say the U.S. But the MSOC F probably was railroaded, doomed from the outset. Was it destined for disaster in an effort to keep the Marines out of Afghanistan at that time? Was there concern over encroachment by these upstarts (“cowboys”) into special operations, long an Army domain?

Sometimes we defeat ourselves without much Taliban help.

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