On July 28, 2010, reckless mortar fire by U.S. Marines ended the life of a 14 year old Afghan girl named Gul Makay. Her name مکئ ګل is that of the heroine in the famous Pashtun folk tale of Musa Khan. The Marine unit, according to Time Magazine’s Adam Ferguson, was the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. The location was the “liberated” Afghan district town of Marjah in Helmond Province. The Marines had been fired upon by a lone gunman 250 meters away in what appears to be a semi-residential area. In response, the Marines radioed for indirect fire support. A nearby outpost thereafter fired an unknown number of mortar rounds into the area. The suppression fire apparently chased away the gunman but killed Gul Makay.
Similarly, on March 24, 2010, the Taliban attacked an American outpost in Ali Sher District, Khost Province. In response, the Americans fired mortars, one of which hit a home in Chargoti village, killing a teenage couple and injuring a man, his wife and two of his children. [reported by the Afghan women’s network - RAWA]. The Wiki-leaks documents reveal other incidents of civilians being killed by errant U.S. mortars, the total number of such deaths being unknown. In each incident, there is no press release by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). There is never any apparent official investigation and no apparent discipline or courts-martial of the military members involved. The pattern just continues to replicate in another part of Afghanistan.
The culprit is the “mortar.” The mortar is by definition an indiscriminate weapon. It began its life as simply a tube from which a shell or rocket is launched. As depicted in the top photo for this article, some mortars in use in Afghanistan today are just as crude and inaccurate as those used 60 years ago during the Second World War.
It is difficult to determine exactly how inaccurate these weapons are. There is some data that the American M252 81mm mortar may have a CEP of 130 or more meters. (CEP stands for Circular Error Probable). What this number means is that out of ten mortar rounds fired, at least five will likely land within 130 meters of the target and five statistically will land outside this circle. In residential areas this level of inaccuracy for high explosive rounds equates with indiscriminate fire, which would be a violation of the rules of war. Military weapons are considered indiscriminate if they are either significantly inaccurate (and therefore are just as likely to kill civilians as the enemy) or have the potential to produce unnecessary civilian casualties. (see the Hague Convention).
During the second Battle of Fallujah, in Iraq, (2004) the U.S. military reportedly fired in excess of 9,000 mortar rounds into the city. As described in the March-April 2005, edition of Field Artillery (U.S. Army), mortar fire is “walked” to the target. What this means is that the mortar is so inaccurate that an initial round is fired somewhere near the target and then it is adjusted with each successive round, getting closer and closer to the target until it is on target. Walking the mortar fire to the target kills anything in its path. One standard U.S. military tactic, endorsed in Field Artillery magazine, is to fire mortars across the line of departure and preceding the American advance into an area, walking the fire in front of the American troops. This type of fire does not distinguish between Taliban and civilians, it simply kills everyone it encounters.
The U.S. Army has long recognized the problem and been working for years on a next generation 120 mm mortar, called the Accelerated Precision Mortar Initiative (APMI), but in trials the APMI has not been very accelerated and its precision is less than the original specifications two years ago called for. It has still apparently not been deployed.
In the interim, mortars should be banned from use within a kilometer of any residential structure. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been attempting to halt the counter-productive night raids by Special Operations personnel into Afghan homes. He needs to expand his objections to encompass restrictions on NATO and American mortars.
Ms. Gul Makay (her full name was apparently Gul Makay Karim) did not have to die. She was not an inevitable casualty of warfare. The Marines chose to blanket a semi-residential area with mortar fire rather than attempt to chase down or shoot a lone gunman. That does not win hearts and minds. Afghan children should not have to die in order to protect U.S. Marines.
Note: Besides being ineffective and counter-productive, the mortar is also not cost-effective. For example, each M821 high explosive round costs $605.00 in 2007, dollars and they are normally fired in barrages at either real targets, suspected targets or just for H&I (harassment and interdiction). The Marines seem oblivious to the U.S. budget deficit.
In the Marjah incident, what this means is that a gunman fired a few cents worth of AK-47 rounds at the U.S. Marines and in response the Marines probably fired $10,000.00 in mortar rounds that all missed their target, yet killed an innocent. This one incident could sum up the entire Afghan war and helps explain why the American efforts have largely failed to-date.
Note 2: This $605.00 cost is the purchase price. It does not include transport costs from an arsenal in the U.S. to a U.S. departure airbase; C-17 costs to Bagram, C-130 costs to Kandahar air field, and helicopter costs to Marjah. All these fuel, manpower, equipment and depreciation/wear & tear costs could add 300% or more to the overall cost of each mortar round.