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‘No One Has Ever Gotten a 15-6 for Losing a Village in Afghanistan’

Registan’s Josh Foust is at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan — hopefully he’ll find the Korean BBQ dining facility that I missed — and he has a fascinating anecdote about a lieutenant colonel’s frustrations over the conduct of the war. The officer starts by talking about how the Army makes him launch a type of investigation, called an AR 15-6, every time a soldier is killed. The idea is to disincentivize commanders from losing soldiers. To be somewhat crass about it, getting your troops killed just isn’t worth the paperwork.

Then the officer says something striking:

“No one has ever gotten a 15-6 for losing a village in Afghanistan,” he said. “But if he loses a soldier defending that village from the Taliban, he gets investigated.”

As soon as he said it, we both paused for a second and looked at each other.

“I think you just explained why we’re losing,” I said, meaning every word. As of late, I’ve been fighting this nagging feeling that, from command on down, there is no concerted desire to accomplish the mission, just a desire to finish one’s tour and head home and screw whoever has to pick up the pieces later.

Let me go on record as saying that I try hard not to compare Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if I miss pertinent connections, it’s better to be scrupulous in avoiding facile similarities — or worse, invented ones that arise out of ignorance — so as not to be sucked into a self-inflicted misperception trap. That said, it’s rather striking how often reporters would hear accounts like these in 2005 and 2006 from soldiers in Iraq who were trying to make sense of their tours. It didn’t make sense to many veterans of pre-surge Iraq just what they were doing by hunkering down on big bases only to emerge for sporadic tours into the teeth of a raging and multifaceted insurgency. That sense of confusion and futility was demoralizing, and the frustrations would boil over into conversations with reporters.

I’m not making any broader point about either Afghanistan or this officer’s experience or the proper way for the Army to incentivize risk versus opportunity. Nor do I want to establish a lazy meme that pre-surge Iraq is “like” pre-plus-up Afghanistan. It’s just hard to avoid the sense of deja vu.

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