Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

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by Joshua Foust on 8/27/2009 · 1 comment

So everyone seems to have thought—from Gates and Adm. Mullen on down—that General McChrystal would bring something fundamentally new to the Afghan conflict—new ideas, new policies, the ability to secure funds and troops. The reality, of course, is far less utopian. McChrystal’s new counterinsurgency directives are remarkably similar to his predecessor’s, General McKiernan. (McKiernan was fired eleven months early, so we are told, because he was insufficiently creative or DC-friendly.) Last month I wrote in World Politics Review:

Gen. McChrystal’s directive prescribing withdrawal from engagement with enemy forces whenever there is a danger of civilian casualties also raises concerns. As demonstrated by the much-publicized airstrike in Farah, which killed a few dozen civilians and violated standing orders about air strikes, current rules of engagement are already ignored, because soldiers are given a proverbial “get-out-jail-free” card — namely, their own discretion about whether or not they can withdraw safely.

I was trying to highlight one of the big contradictions in the new rules—since they are not materially different from the old rules, there is the same old contradiction: don’t attack civilian targets, unless you have to. McChrystal has followed up on such directives by saying targeting the enemy should be a tiny part of the fight (5% in some formulations), and the support and security of the civilian population should be the #1 priority.

So why the hell are we attacking clinics just because there are Taliban inside? That seems incredibly risky, if the enemy is to be discounted and the civilian population enshrined as the ultimate prize.

We are lucky no civilians got hurt or killed in the gunfight. This is where those new rules become fuzzy and difficult to distinguish from the old ones: soldiers still have the right to self-defense, so if Taliban begin shooting from a clinic, then they can shoot at the clinic. And that is how we first thought the story took place: when it was first reported yesterday, the story was that the Taliban “stormed a hospital” in Paktika and U.S. troops bravely responded.

Today, though, we have a different story: a Taliban commander and three wounded companions had come to the hospital seeking treatment, and an Afghan tipped off the local American unit, which sparked the raid on the hospital. The hospital didn’t erupt in machine gun fire as soldiers happened to pass by, as the initial reports said—the soliders went to raid a hospital for harboring Taliban (an Apache helicopter ended the hours-long gunfight when it shot rockets into the clinic, destroying it).

Now, it’s a good thing that they got that Taliban commander—probably. ISAF just traded one hospital for one low level commander. I’m not certain that’s a reasonable or appropriate exchange… that is, if the people of Paktika are the prize, and not just more Taliban heads on a stake.

The reality is, very little has changed in Afghanistan since McChrystal took over, and so long as incidents like this take place, very little will change. Even so, the media coverage of McChrystal will continue to paint him as a new kind of commander, with new ideas, who is so new. Poppycock.

Photo: Humvees leaving the Bandar Commande Observation Post in Paktika Province, Afghanistan, courtesy

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

Sam Zarifi August 28, 2009 at 4:23 am

From your blog to McChrystal’s ear, as they say.

Two things are missing from the new managements’ ‘new’ tactical directive: First, no tactical directive is useful without a serious disciplinary procedure to back it up, and there is no improvement as far as we can tell in an accountability procedure that is credible (notwithstanding the two sincere but overwhelmed civilians now ‘coordinating’ investigations at ISAF HQ), comprehensive (covers US OGAs, for instance) and consistent (standard between US and ISAF countries).

Second, ISAF/US still don’t get that their political problem isn’t systematic violations of IHL (the evidence doesn’t support that) but rather the perception among Afghans that the internationals don’t care about their well-being.

So in this instance, even if the attack on the clinic were IHL-compliant (and that’s unclear as frankly it looks as if ANA at least engaged in a legally dubious attack that the Apache had to bring to an end), the bottom line is that international forces destroyed a clinic.

The impact on civilians is immediate, and PR-wise, it takes attention away from the increasingly frequent and brutal systematic atrocities committed by anti-government groups.

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