Weekly Commentary — “Kinder, Gentler” COIN and Marja
Stanley McChrystal is very serious about his vision of “kinder, gentler” counterinsurgency.
When a recent rocket attack killed 12 villagers, at least nine of them noncombatants, he immediately apologized to President Karzai and ordered troops to suspend use of the weapon system involved.
I think it’s fair to say that actions like this are unprecedented in the history of U.S. counterinsurgency.
Not that that is likely to be of much consolation to those who knew those twelve people, several of whom were children.
The incident occurred as part of Operation Mushtarak, billed as the largest military operation in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Involving apparently 15,000 coalition and Afghan troops, including 4000 U.S. Marines, it is an attempt to “clear” the small town and district of Marja in southern Helmand of insurgents.
Supposedly, Marja has now become the biggest Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan; a year ago, it was on no one’s radar.
The “preparation of the battlefield” before the operation began was marked by confusion; a warning of the assault, much like the second attack on Fallujah in November 2004, so that civilians could flee ahead of the fighting, combined with admonitions to civilians to stay in their homes.
What supposedly makes this plan different from so many useless efforts previously in Afghanistan is the planning for the aftermath. Apparently, 2000 Afghan police will be stationed here after the battle is concluded, along with civilian officials; McChrystal has been quoted as saying, “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in.”
Whether this “government in a box” will be superior to Taliban governance is an open question; it is likely to be more corrupt and provide less security but may allow more political freedom. And if there is an improvement, will it be enough of one to justify the violence and disruption the people of Marja have to go through in this assault, and in the Taliban attacks that are sure to follow?
That is likely not a question Stanley McChrystal is asking himself; even “kinder, gentler” counterinsurgency relies on the automatic, unquestioning assumption that your side must prevail. And the reasons for that assumption, even in this “population-centric” paradigm, always lie beyond the good of the population in question. Here, they have something to do with al-Qaeda, but mostly to do with the idea that the United States shouldn’t lose.
It’s easy enough for members of the U.S. military and reporters embedded with them to convince themselves that these considerations are perfectly compatible with, or even logically linked to, the good of the Afghan population. The brutality of the typical insurgency faced with a technologically superior foe that has far more resources for coercion enables this feeling, and the reactionary ideology of the Taliban intensifies it. Any further qualms are put to rest by McChrystal’s new rules of engagement.
Afghanistan has always been a difficult one. If you observed the early commentary from the left very closely, it would have been difficult to avoid noting that it was the very people who knew the most about Afghanistan and approached analyzing the war from the vantage-point of the Afghan people who most fudged the question of what is to be done, and in particular the question of U.S. withdrawal. Withdrawal has become an easy question for those “progressives” who believe that “Afghanistan is not worth the bones of a single American soldier” (to paraphrase Bismarck on the Balkans) or that Afghanistan is a primitive, stone-age civilization that, despite the best of our intentions, we cannot hope to democratize.
For those of us with a slightly more expansive view of the worth and capabilities of Afghans, it has never been that easy. Even now, it is not. The neo-Taliban has avoided both traps of the takfiri insurgency of Iraq; an increasing spiral of ideological extremism and one of baroque and macabre violence against one’s own side. But how much of that is because of the existence of political competition; if they took over completely, who knows what order they would impose?
It is conventional for social scientists and others who apply a cost-benefit calculus to human misery to judge actions not relative to some unattainable baseline but rather relative to likely or feasible alternatives. Doesn’t the Korean War, with all its saturation bombing atrocity, seem a little more reasonable when one looks at the horror that is North Korea today?
But the truth is that strong actions, like that one or the occupation of Afghanistan, play a constitutive role, creating and destroying various other alternatives. The trauma of the Korean War conditioned what kind of country North Korea would be afterward; the perpetuation of the Afghan counterinsurgency may well make the neo-Taliban more brutal and more desperate. If it does, just as in Iraq, everybody will wash their hands of it, saying that this proves all the more how right we were all along.