How Short-Term Thinking is Causing Long-Term Failure in Afghanistan

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, 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.

tarok ba.jpgBroadwell, 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.

The men of Tarok Kalache were enraged by their homes' destruction. "These dudes were extremely angry," Captain Patrick McGuigan, a subordinate of Flynn, later told Stars and Stripes. "The elder (of Tarok Kalacheh) wouldn't even talk to me for three weeks, he was that [angry]." Some compared the U.S. force to the Soviet occupiers. But leveling the village was just the beginning.

In order to prepare the area for this summer--when the Taliban are widely expected to stage a counter-assault--Flynn, understandably eager to help the Afghans protect themselves, sidestepped the Afghan Ministry of Interior's vetting guidelines and built his own local security force. But arming and empowering whatever young men asked for a free assault rifle, and saving the training and vetting for later, has had some unfortunate side effects. According to a follow-up dispatch from Broadwell, U.S. trainers have struggled to stop these Afghan "police" from beating suspected "bad guys" in the street.

During his campaign to clear the Arghandab district, of which Tarok Kalache is a part, Flynn enlisted the nearby Afghan Border Police, the only Afghan force then in the area. After all, one of the objectives in the war is to build up, train, and hand over responsibility to Afghan troops. But the ABP, which is meant to patrol the national borders, doesn't have jurisdiction in Arghandab. That may be in part because it is run by a rather notorious figure known as Colonel Raziq, a local warlord popular with U.S. forces for his reputation for getting things done. The Associated Press recently reported that Canadian troops in the area are wary of Raziq's tactics, warning that he is a "butcher" who executes suspects and is beyond U.S. or Afghan control. The A.P. describes Raziq as leading a "shadowy proxy war within the war." This warlord might bring more government troops to Arghandab, but it also forces locals to choose between him or the Taliban. Few Afghans love the Taliban, but if Raziq abuses his newfound power, it will do little to promote sympathy for the U.S.-led force that put him there.

Perhaps most troubling was Flynn's decision to hand the power of land title to the District Sub-Governor. This man now has the power to assign property values, set boundaries, and enforce ownership, all in an area where there previously was none. Land reform can be a good thing, especially in a country like Afghanistan where land disputes can produce appalling violence. But in the midst of a massive campaign to "clear" an area of Taliban insurgents, the process will likely go with little or no U.S. monitoring. If this Sub-Governor is miraculously one of the few local Afghan politicians who is not corrupt, he now has so much power, and so many incentives to abuse it, that corruption seems guaranteed. Flynn's reconstruction funds and land redistribution effort are clearly well-intentioned, but, unfortunately, only the Sub-Governor and those who can afford to bribe him will likely benefit. Rather than help the poor and erode corruption as intended, this plan could do the opposite.

The pressure to achieve "progress" on an artificially short time frame has guided the U.S. military to make regrettable choices across much of Afghanistan. The destruction and reconstruction of Tarok Kolache is only one example, if an especially sharp one. That pressure comes in part from the same political forces that led to the July 2011 drawdown date, and now the 2014 one. It also comes from officers' desire to show progress over a year-long tour of duty. You can hardly blame individual officers and politicians for the high-pressure environment driving their decision-making. In fact, some of these pressures, especially the desire to exceed expectations and accomplish great things, can be very beneficial. But each affects command decisions in unexpected ways, and when combined often undermine the ultimate strategic goals of the war.

Part of the problem is that, as many critics have pointed out, there has never been a clearly articulated, straightforward narrative describing the war's central missions and how to accomplish them. Without an overarching strategy, it's no wonder that so many tactical decisions have been shortsighted or outright contradictory. The war in Afghanistan is, ultimately, a tactical war, fought at the local level over year-long deployments. When those small, tactical decisions are made for the wrong reasons, it can add up to big, strategic failure.

Photo at top by Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images. Below, aerial photos show Tarok Kolache before and after its destruction. Additional reporting by Max Fisher