Short Term Thinking and Long Term Failure in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 9 months ago

The always scholarly and thoughtful Joshua Foust gives us a good and provoking piece in the Atlantic entitled How Short Term Thinking is Causing Long Term Failure in Afghanistan.  Some of it is reproduced below, but make sure to visit the article and read it all.

On October 6, 2010, Lieutenant Colonel David Flynn, charged with clearing a tiny village in the Arghandab district of southeast Afghanistan, called in 49,200 pounds of rockets and aerial bombs, leveling it completely. According to Paula Broadwell, a former adviser to General David Petraeus, Flynn believed that the village of Tarok Kolache was empty of civilians and full of explosive traps. The Taliban, Broadwell recounted for ForeignPolicy.com, had “conducted an intimidation campaign” to chase away the villagers and promptly set up shop inside the village. In earlier attempts to clear it, Flynn’s unit had taken heavy losses, including multiple amputations from homemade explosives and several dead. He decided the only reasonable way to “clear” the mine-riddled village was to bomb it to the ground. When Tarok Kolache’s residents tried to return to the homes their families had maintained for generations, they found nothing but dust. Flynn offered them money for reconstruction and reimbursement, but getting it required jumping a long series of bureaucratic hoops, some of them controlled by notoriously corrupt local politicians. Flynn, and later Broadwell, who is also writing a biography of Petraeus, declared it a success.

Josh then goes on to lament the nature of pressure to show results that accompanies time lines for withdrawal.  It is a well known lament, a sad song I have sung many times concerning both Iraq and Afghanistan, the premature withdrawal from Iraq, the ridiculous Status of Forces Agreement under which our remaining troops operate, and so on.  This dirge is well rehearsed with my regular readers.  Josh continues.

Tarok Kolache is the kind of horror story that always accompanies war. “This is not the first time this has happened,” a platoon leader who served in Kandahar recounted to me. There, the destruction of mined villages is common. Last November, the New York Times reported that demolishing unoccupied homes and towns had become routine in several districts in Kandahar. Because the war has displaced an estimated 297,000 Afghans, many of whom will flee during extended violence and later return, homes are often empty. In October, the Daily Mail quoted this same Lt. Col. Flynn as threatening villagers with their town’s destruction if they did not report Taliban activity to his soldiers (the village in that story, Khosrow Sofia, was later burned to the ground much like Tarok Kolache). In neighboring Helmand province–even more violent than Kandahar–Marines have explicitly threatened villages with destruction if local civilians didn’t volunteer the locations of near IEDs.

Joshua, respectful of the job that the military is doing, does note that there is no ill intention even with hard tactics.

It’s worth repeating what should be obvious to anyone who has worked with the U.S. military in Afghanistan: this isn’t driven by malice. The recent and overwhelming emphasis on expediency, from both the military and its civilian leadership, has changed incentives. In his 2009 Counterinsurgency Guidance, General Stanley McChrystal told the troops in Afghanistan that “Destroying a home or property jeopardizes the livelihood of an entire family – and creates more insurgents. We sow the seeds of our demise.” Last year, General Petraeus repeated the advice to his troops. But the U.S.-led campaign in the south of Afghanistan is increasingly obsessed with “momentum,” or the need to make steady, ever-greater progress. It’s a word one hears often from the U.S.-led force in Afghanistan, whether in official press releases, network news interviews with Petraeus, or casual conversations with officers. When Broadwell wrote up Flynn’s decision to destroy Tarok Kalache, she approvingly cited the need to maintain “momentum.”

“In Afghanistan, second and third-order effects are largely overlooked,” Morgan Sheeran, a Sergeant First Class who teaches at the Counterinsurgency Training Center in Kabul, told me. The result, Sheeran said, is that decisions are often made in the moment without understanding their long-term consequences.

These statements by Sheeran seems to be particularly ungracious to me, and it ignores a large body of data that argues that rather than overlooking or not understanding second and third order effects, many times Marines and Soldiers in the field are making nuanced value judgments based on the situation, and with full knowledge of the second and third order effects.

I tend to doubt the Pajhwok Afghan News as a reliable and unbiased source, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Marines in Helmand had made it very difficult for the villagers if they harbored insurgents.  Having a son who did counterinsurgency in Fallujah in 2007 I know a little something about hard places with hard people, and I know something about the tactics used by the Marines.  Josh also laments the hard tactics used by the Afghan National Police, and I know something about the tactics used by the IPs in Fallujah; again, hard tactics for hard people where the insurgency had hung on longer than almost anywhere else.  Good governance and digging wells didn’t turn Fallujah in 2007.  I simply cannot divulge any more than this about Fallujah IP tactics, but I suspect that those tactics have somewhat abated.

I once asked a respected and notable theologian if he believed in “such-and-such” (the specific point of doctrine isn’t important, and it had nothing to do with the essentials).  His response to me is telling.  He responded, “yes, no and maybe.”  His nuanced reply set up categories, put in place stipulations, and laid caveats, so that a simple yes or no didn’t suffice.  It was a conversation rather than a sound bite.

Perhaps this is a poor analogy, but when asked: Is counterinsurgency razing towns to the ground, or is it providing funds for jobs programs?  Is it sitting and drinking Chai, or is it kicking in doors?  Is it taking off your Oakley wrap-arounds to befriend the elders, or is it projecting force and engendering fear?

I think that the answer is yes, no and maybe.  It is something that only the boots on the ground can know, changing with the times and epochs, evolving with stages of the campaign, and germane and applicable depending on the specific population and insurgents (and it’s not something that can be ascertained through high value target hits by operators living on FOBs and riding helicopters to the field).  With Josh, I lament the defeatist mentality that wants to talk with hard core Taliban and get out now.  I want to stick this out until we’re done, even though I wouldn’t engage in the degree of nation-building espoused by Josh.

When the Marines (24th MEU) first entered Garmsir in 2008, they killed 400+ Taliban, and literally leveled parts of Garmsir.  Yet the people are on record wanting and asking them to stay, themselves lamenting the departure of the Marines and advent of the British.  So I just don’t think that it’s as simple as seeing hard tactics as a function of a hurried campaign.

  • ArmyMom

    Captain-I read your articles even when I don’t agree with what you have to say, sometimes I think you make sense and other times, I think not.

    I personally know some of the troops that you write about in this article that leveled the village. This village would not have been leveled if it weren’t for the Taliban. This is not a war about the average Afghanistan farmer, it is a war of distinguishing the bad guys from the good. Not an easy task. especially when the average farmer won’t talk.
    Our troops would not have leveled these villages if they didn’t ultimately think that by not doing so would have injured or killed more of our troops and when it all gets boiled down to the nitty gritty-this is a war.
    I completely agree with Lieutenant Colonel David Flynn!

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    If you think I make sense SOMETIMES, that places you in the category with most of my readers, I would suspect.

    I understand your position, ArmyMom. And I too think that sometimes COIN is about leveling villages. Did you not get that from my article?

  • desertpete45

    “hard tactics for hard people” and in my own word “hard tactics by hard people” and these hardened people are those we are fighting in this endless war. If guerilla engagements take 10-12:1 odds to win as a British officer told us in training session before we shipped off for RVN in 1967 is true then we need a hell of a lot more young men on the ground in A-stan. However, we need not have anyone on the ground if our spineless Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Barack Hussein Obama, and other staffers and brass have not the stomach to win this “war” that we are in, that our gutless politicians use for political gain, who have not the courage to say “if we are in A-stan then we need to declare war on someone”. It is also easy to second guess our young men on the ground, those boots have bodies attached, but from personal experience I can tell you the last thing a young Marine is thinking about if he rounds a corner and their is a “civilian” standing there with Kalashnikov is “gee I wonder if he is a friendly or should I kill the bastard before he kills me.” Of course this has happened in villages with civilians standing around. Maybe the young Marine should have held his fire to assure that no civilian would be injured, of course that young Marine would be then flown to Dover. Back to the hard people, damn right they are hard and we have become soft (politically). Do we really thing the ROEs for our side have the T-ban shaking in their boots or getting rid of DADT has our enemy quivering? Many of our politicians should be in jail and we should release American military men rotting in Levenworth because he had to make a “split second decision”. What the hell, we are self destructing! Who are making these decisions to incarcerate and charge our young men?? Republicans and democrats both. The men we are fighting are hard, they are not girlymen as the ones we have running this country and military. When a general mentions that he is concerned with our troops “carbon footprint” in A-stan he is kissing someone’s behind and it certainly isn’t the behind of our field commanders and young fighting men. The T-ban are doing backflips in their caves!!! They have already won, it is a matter of time. The genius who is our Commander in Chief now wants to begin withdrawing combat forces in July 2011 and complete this by 2014 regardless of conditions on the ground one must assume since he announced dates!!!! 58, 179 young Americans died in Vietnam and today it is a commie rathole the same as it would have been if we never went there. Do we really think we accomplished anything of value in Iraq? At least Sadaam brought stability to that region and kept the loons in Iran at bay. Will we accomplish anything of value in A-stan or will we leave and have it revert to what it has always been? I believe when we leave nothing will have changed except the lost lives of many young Americans and for what.Where is the outrage over this undeclared war by the media now that there darling BHO is in office. GWB crewed up, he should have invaded Saudi Arabia and cut the head off the snake, pumped their oil and liberated the American citizens (children) held their by Saudi men while their American mothers plead uselessly to our effete government for help. What is our mission in A-stan??? Our worthless elected officials and the Armed Services subcommittees headed by embarrasments such as Carl Levin do nothing but hold hearings and make it more difficult for our young men to survive and do their jobs and all the while fearing a court martial or imprisonment if they pull the trigger too soon. They are trying to survive and the heat of battle is light years away from cherry wood airconditioned and heated hearing rooms in DC. My son is on his second combat tour in A-stan and all I want from my elected fools is an answer. Instead I get robo letters and smart ass, wet behind the ears, 20 something arrogant staffers and aids when I call their offices. Dammit they work for me/us. Now almost 3x as long as it took us to win WWII and we are still plagued by liberal hippy mentality inside the beltway which is not looking our for America or our young men on the ground who fill those boots everyone continually talks about. All this crap about making more enemies I think is just that, crap spewing by McChrystal and Petreaus. The damn enemy purposely hides withcivilians and the shady prez of A-stan Karmai hold our young men responsible! When ll one our weak kneeded leaders in DC have the moxy to tell Karmai to shut his damn mouth because we are bleeding and dying and being maimed and spending our money so “shut the hell up and hold the T-ban responsible!” Where are the tough questions for Obama? He really doesn’t care as he scurries down the road to the destruction of America and the embracing of China!! What have we wrought for ourselves? 35 years ago as a graduate student at Arizona State I befriended a Chinese graduate student, he was studying business, imagine that! We had many discussions and one day he said to me ” I am Chinese and I know how Chinese think and we are not you friends” Now fast forward Hu speaks about defeating us in terms everyone understands, unviels a stealth fighter before our pantywaste Secretary of Defense and Obama plays a revolutionary anti-American song at the state dinner for this butcher. Methinks it is over for America unless Americans wake up and hold our elected officials feet to the flames.

    Semper Fidelis,

    Desert Pete
    RVN 1967

  • Jim Harris

    From the Atlantic article:

    “When asked whether critics were fair in comparing Tarok Kolache’s destruction to the infamous Vietnam War quote, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” Broadwell replied, “Not in the context within which critics are framing this issue. I think it is an unfair comparison.”

    Not only is it an unfair comparison to Iraq or Afghanistan, it is also unfair to our warriors in Vietnam. They had many of the same issues there, including dealing with people who knew where the booby traps were hidden, who knew where the enemy was, and in many cases was the enemy. As distastful as it may be to deal with, hard means for hard people is often appropriate. And unfortunately, history shows that it works!! In fact, were it not for our role, it nearly worked in Afghanistan against the Soviets — and some would even argue that it did.

    We are right to question cherished “religious” dogmas and assumptions in these blogs, even if it is not comfy for some readers.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Right. There you go Jim. Thanks for your observations.

  • desertpete45

    Of course, blame the United States of America first!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What about the atrocities of the muslims, our enemies?????????????????

  • desertpete45

    Hey Captain, where the hell is the outrage with what our govt is doing to our men in the field???????????? We have a Marxist in the White House who is bent on destroying our nation, My Nation that my dad fought for and was wounded on Saipan, I fought for and spent a month in the Navy Hospital in Guam and that my son fought for and is fighting for in A-stan??????????????????


You are currently reading "Short Term Thinking and Long Term Failure in Afghanistan", entry #6053 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency and was published January 24th, 2011 by Herschel Smith.

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