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.