Is the U.S. military razing villages in a misguided effort to save them?
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.
As soldiers arrive on the battlefields of Afghanistan, they face enormous expectations to show "progress." It is an impossible situation: the military's counterinsurgency strategy requires, by all accounts, years to implement and even longer to succeed. Yet officers are pressured, both by political considerations in Washington and command expectations in Kabul, to accomplish big objectives on very short time frames. Because it's rare for a tour of duty to last more than 12 months, commanders are severely constrained in what choices they can make. It's difficult to be slow and deliberate when one must show progress, right now, in time for a Congressional hearing or a strategic review. Those pressures constraint incentives and shape day-to-day decision-making. Officers, perhaps understandably, look for ways to demonstrate short-term gain, sometimes at the cost of long-term success. Today, Tarok Kolache is "cleared." Three years from now, when the Obama administration says it will begin reducing troop numbers, how stable, safe, and anti-Taliban will its remaining villagers really be?
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.
Broadwell, reached by email in Afghanistan, insisted that officers try to avoid razing villages outright. "Given that the strategy - that EVERYONE here knows - is to win the hearts and minds of villagers, razing villages is not high on the priority list. It is not common." However, when in the field, "Commander's have to make a calculation about the risks." 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."
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 Master Sergeant 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.