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?