YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

In Afghanistan, less armor may be more

In an effort to gain the trust of Afghan civilians, U.S. commanders are calling on troops to be respectful drivers and to consider long-term benefits of getting out and mixing. But there are qualms.

September 06, 2009|Julian E. Barnes

TAGAB VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN — As the radio crackled with a report that nearby soldiers had come under attack, the mood among Georgia National Guard members in their heavily armored truck grew tense.

They were entering a stretch of road known as "the Gantlet" for its frequent small-arms fire and roadside bombs. Earlier in the summer, three members of the company were killed in a roadside blast not far away.

Staff Sgt. Rodney "Bull" Bettis gave the driver a warning: Don't slow down.

Speeding up is a common response to the rising threat from roadside bombs all around Afghanistan, an instinctual response to mortal danger.

But the new U.S. and allied commander wants troops to think twice before barreling through Afghan villages and cities.

"We send a message that we don't care about them, that our safety is more important than theirs," Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal told his regional commanders during a morning briefing this summer.

McChrystal said he has his own convoy move with the traffic, perhaps going even a bit slower. He never waves other vehicles off the road.

"That is how I want this entire force to move," he said.

One of McChrystal's first acts was a directive tightening rules on airstrikes to limit civilian casualties. Despite allegations that a strike killed dozens of civilians Friday, the new rules have sharply reduced the number of deaths.

Overhauling the way alliance troops treat Afghans in everyday interactions represents the next step in rebuilding trust, McChrystal said at the briefing. Aggressive behavior could undermine the larger mission, he said.

"We send two messages: We send the message we don't respect the Afghans and we send a more subtle message that we are scared," McChrystal said. "This is a warrior culture. . . . If you walk around looking scared, they are not going to respect you."

The commander's guidance is becoming national policy. In a formal assessment of the military effort presented last week to President Obama, McChrystal said the United States military must change the way it operates in Afghanistan in part by ensuring that troops protect and show respect for Afghans.

As the new directives filter through the ranks, there is no doubt as to whether officers and troops will carry them out. But for some, the changes may seem to conflict with their first priority: keeping fellow soldiers and Marines safe.


Anxiety and fear

The chatter inside Bull Bettis' MRAP -- a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle -- is usually full of good- natured wisecracks and tales about characters back in Georgia.

But once in "the Gantlet," the normally warm and spirited gunner, Sgt. Jim Wilson, turned grim. From inside the turret, where he mans the M240 and .50-caliber machine guns, Wilson's thoughts turn to his three girls, ages 7, 8 and 9.

"If anything happens, tell my babies I love them," he said.

But the rest of the crew did not want the jinx of such dark talk.

"Knock it off," Bettis said.

"Yeah, knock it off," echoed Capt. David Burris, the unit's chaplain.

"I don't want anything to happen," Wilson replied. "But I just haven't written the letter."

The letter is the note soldiers write to their families in case they are killed. When soldiers are thinking about the letter, they are thinking about dying.

Even inside the thick steel of the MRAP's armor, the threat of bombs along Afghanistan's roads is real. With dozens of U.S. troops being killed by the devices each month, especially in the south of the country, there is every reason for soldiers to feel anxious.

The chaplain has come under attack twice in the short time he has been in Afghanistan. No one was seriously hurt, but the guardsmen jokingly argue about whether he is a protective talisman or a Taliban magnet. Still, when in peril, they turn to Burris for reassurance.

From the back of the MRAP, the chaplain piped up once more across the intercom.

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me," Burris said. "Thy .50-cal. and 240, they comfort me."

The MRAP, a V-hulled truck, has protected the lives and limbs of soldiers as a successor to the Humvee, and allowed travel on roads thick with explosive devices. The problem is that Afghans are intimidated by the protective armor on the vehicles, according to some of McChrystal's top military advisors.

An approaching armored vehicle such as the MRAP or Stryker can look menacing, and may remind Afghans of the Soviet army and its armored Hind helicopters.

"I call it a visceral problem," said Cmdr. Jeff Eggers, a Navy SEAL serving as an advisor to McChrystal. "A Stryker coming around the corner may evoke a Hind gunship coming over the hill. But we are not the Soviets, not by a long shot."

Los Angeles Times Articles