'Destroy the Town to Save It'

By James Fallows

Via my Atlantic colleague James Gibney, a pointer to the astonishing, deadpan final words of Rajiv Chandrasekaran's  article in the Washington Post yesterday, about the deployment of M1 Abrams tanks to Afghanistan as a ramping up and "conventionalizing" of the war against the Taliban.

>>"Why do you have to blow up so many of our fields and homes?" a farmer from the Arghandab district asked a top NATO general at a recent community meeting.

Although military officials are apologetic in public, they maintain privately that the tactic has a benefit beyond the elimination of insurgent bombs. By making people travel to the district governor's office to submit a claim for damaged property, "in effect, you're connecting the government to the people," the senior officer said.<<

Nearly five years ago, I was at seminar at Ft. Leavenworth, where David Petraeus was then the commanding general. The topic of the meeting was the new Counter Insurgency, or "COIN," doctrine, which Petraeus and the Marine Corps' James Mattis were heading an ambitious, serious, scholarly-soldier effort to rewrite.

Petraeus is now in charge in Afghanistan; Mattis is his successor at CENTCOM; their doctrine was published (PDF here, link to published book here) and received wide attention, discussion, and acclaim. And everything about it was the antithesis of bringing in heavy tanks, bulldozing families off their land, and hoping for a positive payoff when they "connect" to the government by going to beg for relief. What can he and Mattis think of the effort they now oversee? They're just past the generation that served in Vietnam, but they know every detail of its history -- and understand what stories like Chandrasekaran's bode.

Bonus: this summer, after Petraeus took over for Stanley McChrystal, a special Afghan version of COIN guidelines was briefly published on some military sites. It was quickly taken down, but it included items like these:

>>■ "Be a good guest. Treat the Afghan people and their property with respect."

■ "Walk. Patrol on foot whenever possible and engage the population."

■ "Fight hard and fight with discipline: Hunt the enemy aggressively but use only the firepower needed to win a fight." <<

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/11/destroy-the-town-to-save-it/66850/