In Afghanistan, Shooting Ourselves in the Feet

Ta-Nehisi's superb string of posts last week on policing and the use of force brought to mind this remarkable quote from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which deserved the same attention and public discussion that only his later indiscretions received:

I do want to say something that everyone understands. We really ask a lot of our young service people out on the checkpoints because there's danger, they're asked to make very rapid decisions in often very unclear situations. However, to my knowledge, in the nine-plus months I've been here, not a single case where we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it and, in many cases, had families in it. That doesn't mean I'm criticizing the people who are executing. I'm just giving you perspective. We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force.

Let that sink in for a moment. Last year, our forces shot and killed 36 Afghan civilians, and wounded more than twice that number, as their vehicles approach convoys and checkpoints. And not once since McChrystal's arrival have any of those we've shot proved to be a genuine threat. Imagine, if you will, that the NYPD had a record like that.

When he took command, McChrystal tried to shift the focus of operations toward protecting the civilian population. In the main, he succeeded - curtailing air strikes, reining in special operations forces, and surging in sufficient personnel to implement the new strategy. Civilian deaths from coalition forces fell. But checkpoint shootings have remained stubbornly high. And in a sad way, that makes sense. Authorization for air strikes or covert raids can be routed through a higher headquarters, and denied. But when it comes down to the young soldier at a checkpoint, watching a truck speed towards him, the guidelines seem to have little effect. No one else can make the decision. If it feels like a threat, he's going to shoot.

It's a police problem. And although our soldiers policing the Afghan highways are superbly trained, highly disciplined, and deeply motivated, they are policing an alien world. They cannot read the subtle cues that might help them differentiate friend from foe; they are not part of the communities they patrol. In Afghanistan, the only real solution lies in speedily returning these tasks to the Afghans themselves.

Even though that day seems frustratingly distant, veterans are already flooding home, and many are returning to jobs in law enforcement or applying for them with their hiring preferences. More broadly, policing has often taken its cues from the military. The lessons of the battlefields are bound to be translated to our own streets. The new paradigm of counterinsurgency, with its focus on securing the population, addressing underlying grievances, and creating space for communities to craft political solutions to their problems, holds tremendous promise domestically. For decades, reformers have argued that enforcement alone is not sufficient, and can even prove counterproductive - having David Petraeus say the same gives that case a huge boost.

But the checkpoint shootings are a reminder of the stubborn gap between theory and practice. There's already a counter-narrative taking root, as soldiers complain that the real problem is overly restrictive guidelines on the use of force. It's equally probable that some returning veterans will have internalized a very different set of lessons: that commanders don't get the reality on the ground, that force is the only language the population understands, that it's better to shoot first and ask questions later. And that counter-narrative frightens me, both for the challenges it poses to our strategy in the field, and for the effects it's likely to have back at home.

Will the lesson of Afghanistan be the limits of force, or the problems with limiting force?

This post first appeared here under the name Cynic.