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Keeping the 'wolf in sheep's clothing' at bay

By JAMES ZUMWALT, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   March 23, 2012 at 7:06 AM   |   Comments

HERNDON, Va., March 23 (UPI) -- The early morning sky was clear. The bright moon directly overhead made it difficult for the U.S. Army Special Forces unit to stay within the shadows cast by houses along the street of the quiet Iraqi town.

Advancing toward what U.S. intelligence had identified as an al-Qaida safe house, the soldiers carefully scanned rooftops and windows for enemy lookouts. Silently approaching the house in question, each man took up his assigned position. With the house surrounded, four soldiers scaled the walls to take up positions on the roof.

As safe houses are commonly protected by booby traps, the first two men to enter -- one through the front door and one through the back -- were U.S. Navy bomb technicians trained to spot such devices and disarm them.

Upon entering, the senior technician saw nothing yet felt a certain uneasiness come over him. It was a feeling only acquired by those who have survived danger on Iraq's battlefield numerous times -- enabling them to sense its presence.

Wearing a radio headset, the technician sounded a codeword that didn't need repeating. All members of the unit immediately pulled clear of the house -- those on the roof jumping off; those inside diving through windows. Only seconds later, as the unit reassembled at a safe distance, did it become clear why the alarm was sounded: The house collapsed in a tremendous explosion.

Had the senior Navy technician not relied on "gut instinct" that day in 2010, several parents would have lost sons.

The relevance of this story will be shared in a moment. But let us first turn to Afghanistan.

The timing couldn't have been worse for the United States. With a need to negotiate its relationship with the Afghan government on a number of issues, the United States has to do so from a position of weakness, now burdened by Afghan ire raised in the aftermath of the Koran burning incident and the massacre of 16 locals, allegedly by a U.S. soldier.

The situation, however, isn't too dissimilar to what the U.S. experienced in Iraq -- facing the ire of an Iraqi government also eager to see U.S. forces leave. An agreement allowing U.S. military trainers to remain after U.S. combat troops were withdrawn couldn't be reached -- primarily because Baghdad didn't want to grant immunity from prosecution for any future suspected criminal act -- effectively ending the U.S. military presence there.

Among other things, Afghanistan objects to the U.S. policy of nighttime raids on Afghan homes and its positioning of military units in villages. Kabul wants the raids to stop and for U.S. units stationed in villages to be withdrawn to centralized bases. The United States says the nighttime raids are necessary to apprehend Taliban commanders while the village deployments help stabilize the countryside.

(Conducting these raids at night -- most of which act on U.S. intelligence concerning known militants -- actually limits civilian casualties as the element of surprise reduces likelihood of a long, drawn-out firefight.)

Kabul says its own forces can perform the security and stabilization role U.S. forces have played and that night raids should at least be approved in advance -- even when conducted in partnership with Afghan units -- by obtaining a judicial warrant. It is the advance notice demand that should worry the Americans most.

There have been numerous incidents in Afghanistan over the years involving a "wolf in sheep's clothing" by which a perceived friend, in actuality, is the foe.

Kabul has proven incompetent at weeding this danger from among its own troops.

Most recently, after the burning of the Korans, just such a wolf-in-sheep's-clothing incident occurred when two U.S. military officers were shot dead from behind while at their desks in what was a very secure Afghan ministry office.

An absence of trust for our Afghan allies has long been a factor in the U.S. relationship with them -- even before the Koran burning incident and massacre contributed to their distrust toward the Americans.

This brings us back to the story about the Iraqi safe house. The Special Forces unit had been set up. As information about the scheduled U.S. operation was shared with Iraqi allies, an Iraqi wolf-in-sheep's clothing reported it to al-Qaida. Militants rigged the house with explosives in anticipation of luring the Special Forces unit in.

Had it not been for a seasoned veteran's ability to sense danger, dozens of U.S. soldiers would have died.

Distrust was the reason for not giving advance notice to another ally -- Pakistan -- when a U.S. Navy SEALs team zeroed in on Osama bin Laden's hideout. The decision was made that it was better to kill the terrorist mastermind than err on the side of risking his being tipped off and escaping by giving Pakistan prior notice.

Similarly, it is better to ensure that the life of one American soldier isn't put at risk by erring on the side of informing the Afghan government in advance when conducting night raids.

Saving American lives is just as important, if not more so, than extinguishing the life of a well-known terrorist. As such, the same safeguards should be employed.

American lives in Afghanistan shouldn't be put at risk to satisfy Afghan sensitivities, especially when the Afghan government is incapable of purging itself of the wolf in sheep's clothing lurking within its own forces.

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(James. G. Zumwalt, is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer who heads Admiral Zumwalt and Consultants, Inc. He is author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will -- Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields" and the soon-to-be-released "Living the Juche Lie -- North Korea's Kim Dynasty.")

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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