Today brings us a guest post by Lieutenant Smiles, an Army engineer currently deployed to Afghanistan.
The success of COIN in Afghanistan rests on the shoulders of Route Clearance patrols. If you’re not familiar with route clearance, it is the act of deliberately sweeping roads/routes for IEDs. Simply put, our only job is to look for and get rid of IEDs. Having done this a while I can say that there are generally only two outcomes – either you find the IED before it goes off, or you find it because it goes off.
I’m currently stationed in Southern Afghanistan patrolling a route that was averaging about 50 IEDs each week approximately 5 weeks ago. With constant patrolling, a little blood, and a lot of C-4 the route has been considered safe enough to open for civilian traffic. Route Clearance is very rarely considered the main effort in the COIN fight because our patrols are generally of the mounted variety, isolated in our up-armored vehicles from the people we patrol around. Occasionally we stop to question shady individuals, or to delete pictures being taken on cell phone cameras, but by and large we don’t build relationships with locals.
The use of escalation of force by Route Clearance patrols is pivotal in determining the outcome of Afghanistan’s COIN fight. We’re not involved with the locals, yet constantly surrounded by them. The most lethal threat that Afghans pose to Route Clearance patrols is not the Suicide Vehicle Borne IED (SVBIED). The reality is that this threat is non-existent. It was used with great success by the insurgency in Iraq, but has not caught on in Afghanistan. In fact the numbers are so stark, that SVBIED events average about 1 per year since we put troops in this country in 2001. The number of coalition convoys targeted by this device is equally small, yet this TTP is one that is taught by Army trainers preparing units to deploy to Afghanistan. It’s taught again when you get into country as well. Placing such emphasis on a virtually non-existent threat has put RCPs in a precarious position to influence the outcome of the COIN fight.
Driving in Afghanistan is a harrowing experience without having to dodge IEDs. There is no formal driver’s training and traffic laws are non-existent. General McChrystal put together a mandate allowing civilian traffic to pass military convoys, but Route Clearance patrols have been the last to follow. We are frequent offenders of this due to the perceived threat of SVBIEDs. The result of this perceived threat, along with normal Afghan driving, which can be described as erratic (at best), has resulted in 3 different shootings by RCPs in the last 35 days. Civilian casualty count? About 20 wounded and 6 killed. After the bus shooting (by an RCP) in early April, the city of Kandahar rioted. Yes, Rioted. The “Death to the Infidels” kind of riot. The kind of riot that deteriorates the progress the coalition has fought for.
If this fight is to be won, RCPs (and other ancillary units) that operate on the fringe of the COIN fight need to do a better job of recognizing credible threats and managing escalation of force.