Afghanistan policy ignored reality
In the summer of 2009, U.S. Marines pushed into Afghanistan’s Helmand province to begin the new offensive that President Obama had ordered based on the model of President Bush’s Iraq strategy of nation-building and counter-insurgency (COIN). This fall, a little over five years later, U.S. Marines turned over their last base in Helmand to Afghan forces and, except for a residual force, left the country.
Maybe a crescendo in background noise, but not much else. Surely, after 13 years of war, it’s not too soon for a public reckoning. Then again, maybe it’s too late. Maybe Americans have forgotten the fiasco of vision, strategy and tactics that civilian and military leaders forced onto the backs of U.S. service members. If so, it’s worth returning to those early days of this war’s final phase.
It started with that childish, lethal idea — COIN. The U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) would fight to make the Islamic tribespeople of Afghanistan like us more than they liked the Islamic tribespeople of the Taliban. Then, according the plan, Western forces would transfer this fought-over affection of the Afghan people to the Kabul government that the West was simultaneously building and propping up. Presto — a COIN victory.
Grown men gushed at the prospect. “Victory in this conflict is about winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people and engendering their trust,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Steven L. Kwast said in 2009.
This was “population-centric COIN,” as executed by Obama’s new ISAF commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. It is a doctrine that values (Afghan) population protection over (U.S.) force protection — but don’t worry, it’s all for the good of the “long-term” cause.
COIN was also very much about stuff — bribes — on a massive scale. “What do you need here?” The New York Times reported McChrystal asked locals for some two hours on a walk-through in a Helmand town in 2010. Schools. Security. Hospitals. Roads. “(W)e will provide the services as soon as possible,” Time reported the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen saying in 2010.
But Afghans still didn’t like us or trust us. When Gen. David Petraeus became ISAF commander in 2010, he issued a fresh, new COIN guidance that included: “Walk. Stop by, don’t drive by. Patrol on foot whenever possible and engage the population.”
Foot patrols on IED-laced roads made COIN horrifically costly. In June 2011, the U.S. Army reported on a new pattern of injury — “dismounted complex blast injury” — and defined it thus: “An injury caused by an explosion occurring to a service member while dismounted in a combat theater that results in amputation of at least one lower extremity at the knee or above, with either amputation or severe injury to the opposite lower limb, combined with pelvic, abdominal or urogenital injury.”
The final line may be most chilling of all: “This definition is not meant to define a subset of injuries for policy-making decisions.” Heavens, no. Keep walking those IED-laced roads. Keep reality from all policy-making decisions, or COIN will self-destruct, along with the reputations of its enforcers.
That’s exactly why a public reckoning is essential.
Diana West can be contacted via email@example.com.