Cowboy Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 7 months ago

The Guardian published an insulting article on U.S. heavy-handedness in Afghanistan, but before we briefly tackle it, a note about the reaction over at Abu Muqawama.

… what lazy-ass Guardian sub-editor wrote the header at the top of this otherwise good article on the Poles in Ghazni? A good part of the British media (and some of the British Army) indulged in this kind of “oh, the Americans are all violent oafs” narrative for the first three years of the Iraq war until it dawned on everyone that the softly-softly British had more or less lost in Basra and that the “kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out” Americans had adapted and begun to win in the rest of Iraq. I’m not saying the Americans weren’t too kinetic in this part of Afghanistan. Maybe they were. But seriously, these tired all sterotypes about the clumsy American military in COIN operations was supposed to have gone out of style in 2007. This is not, I repeat, Julian Borger’s fault. This is the fault of some clown in London.

Actually, Abu is being gracious, or maybe he hadn’t had enough morning coffee (wait, it was posted at 1323 hours, after six cups).  The title of the article – Afghanistan diary: Poles apart from the Americans’ aggression – matches the import of the article quite well.  Some of the article is quoted below.

The Poles are missing their pierogi, but otherwise morale seems high. They have been here for four months and so far have not lost a man. They claim not to have killed any civilians, which for a rough province like Ghazni, with several “contacts” with the enemy each week, is a good record. The commander of the Polish taskforce is an energetic colonel called Rajmund Andrzejczak, who seems to have taken on board the emerging new orthodoxy on counter-insurgency.

“For me the critical thing is to be non-kinetic,” he said, employing Nato-speak for not shooting.

“After a couple of operations, we realised the less aggressive we were the more effective we were. I recommend not so many troops knocking down doors every night, but instead to sit down and drink tea, discuss what the people need, and bring them closer to the coalition,” he said.

The reference to knocking down doors at night is clear to anyone who has spent more than a couple of days here. It is a dig at US special forces, who have a reputation for raiding Afghan houses in the middle of the night, on the basis of intelligence that can be accurate or inaccurate, causing a disproportionate number of civilian casualties.

“The special forces are playing a damaging and negative role. They operate outside the chain of command, going in and doing raids without any co-ordination,” a senior western aid official told me. Nothing is eroding support for foreign forces faster …

Ghazni’s governor, Mohamed Osman Osmani, is pleased with the Poles. When Osmani first heard they were coming, he had feared a bunch of Warsaw pact headbangers, who would use their artillery and Soviet-model Hind gunships on everything that moved. So he is now pleasantly surprised. He says his province is more peaceful under the lighter-touch Poles than the more aggressive Americans before them.

“Security for us is like oxygen. Without it nothing can breathe, nothing can happen. And the Poles really have brought security,” Osmani said. He told me this in Kabul, on the way to Warsaw, his first trip abroad. From there he called Andrzejczak’s mobile several times a day, checking what was happening at home and reporting back on his first impressions of Europe.

However, by the time we arrived in Ghazni, something had happened to threaten this image of harmony. On 27 February, Polish troops were called to a house in a village called Dhi Khodaidad, a few miles south-west of Ghazni city, where they were told there was a Taliban cell recruiting locals.

What happened next is subject to furious debate, but there is no argument that any Taliban there had got away. The Poles said they were called in by the Afghan police, and did not open fire, using only a flash grenade on what looked like an ordinary building. The local press said the Poles had stormed a mosque guns blazing, damaging the building and destroying a Qur’an. Riots followed soon in Ghazni city, threatening to undo all the Poles’ careful “hearts and minds” work.

“People were saying that the Poles had improved security here, but now with this problem with the mosque they are beginning to wonder, and ask what the Poles are really trying to do here,” said Mirwais Pashtun, the director of a local radio station.

What a bunch of worthless claptrap.  Those cowboy Americans who shoot up everything have been replaced by the softer and more sophisticated and successful Poles, at least until they actually launched a semi-kinetic operation.  Now their reversion to American heavy-handedness has cost them all of the hard won good will.

Pure bunk and myth-making.  The Guardian is telling fairy tales.  Of course it has been more peaceful than before, since the Poles won’t conduct any kinetic operations against the insurgents.  And of course counterinsurgency is more than just kinetic operations, and to say its all about drinking chai in their homes is to dumb down the narrative.

But this whole European narrative wears like a ten year old shoe.  It has worn through and has now become unhealthy for the rest of the body.  The Europeans need to jettison it in order to take part in the larger campaign.  The catastrophe of Basra shows exactly what the British approach to Iraq brought us, and more of the same in Afghanistan is the reason why the campaign is gradually being taken away from the ISAF and brought back under the control of CENTCOM and General David Petraeus.

And as for Petraeus, the softly-softly General?  What does he have to say about the need for kinetics?

… we must pursue the enemy relentlessly and tenaciously.  True irreconcilables, again, must be killed, captured, or driven out of the area.  And we cannot shrink from that any more than we can shrink from being willing to support Afghan reconciliation with those elements that show a willingness to reject the insurgents and help Afghan and ISAF forces.

Petraeus made the attendees at the 45th Munich Security Conference feel uncomfortable with this remark, it was said.  Counterinsurgency: the right thing, at the right time, with the right tools, under the command of the right people, employing the right lines of effort, to the right ends.  If it’s kinetics, then so be it.  If it’s road building, then bring in the bulldozers and skid steers.  If it’s payment for damaged windows or attendance at a town council, or mentoring the police to build a sense of responsibility, then do it.

But if the Euro-sociologists wish to avoid kinetics altogether, then the solution is to leave their weapons at the FOB, and move out of the way so that the U.S. can do what needs to be done.  Mistakes will be made here and there, and the population and the troops will get to know each other over time.  But enough kinetics, while continuing to catalyze complaints, will also engender the belief that one can’t harbor insurgents and be safe.  This realization will be an important step in the campaign for Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, the Poles won’t be a part of it.

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You are currently reading "Cowboy Counterinsurgency", entry #2347 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency and was published March 6th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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