Nonempty Ground in Afghanistan

by Joe Harlan on 2/19/2010 · 1 comment

After reading Josh’s and Julia’s two posts, I feel the need to follow up. It’s been a while since I’ve posted and I’m itchin’ to get back on the wagon. (The bandwagon, it would seem.)

Briefly, I see that Miss Ladkhah’s piece makes two fundamental mistakes:

First, there is the possible misconception that comparing previous wars is always a completely useful exercise, in that they are either the same, or that such issues as civilian population support did not exist; Second, there is the assumption that air dominance is a strategic asset when the population is not just *an* actor, but the *primary* actor.

For the first point, one might easily argue that earlier wars were not the same, because we have usually fought an opposing organized force. In Vietnam, often held up as the obvious example of the United States losing against an insurgency, the other side was still primarily organized, funded, centrally commanded, and ultimately tied to a single entity (assuming the NLF/VC depended sufficiently on the NVA). That single entity, even if using a combination conventional and insurgency strategy, could be (and was, at Paris) addressed through negotiation.

So we had an enemy then — something which we can’t immediately claim now. Part of the problem is that the insurgency in Afghanistan, in contrast, is not a single organized force. We’re fighting an enemy that has the benefit of *essentially being incapable of surrender*, because even if one part — even the nominal head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar — surrenders, it is neither necessary nor even likely that the rest will.

Furthermore, there have been other wars in which civilian populations were critical to the success of the external power. Again, Vietnam serves as an example, as does every major insurgency. But even outside that, so does any population whose support is critical to the success of the fighting force. Why else would have Churchill made his speeches? Why do people protest at the deaths of “our boys”? It is clear that the population often becomes the biggest player in the game.

The second issue I have is only relevant in modern war, and more importantly the change in its effects from previous eras. Once upon a time, war was fought by two opposing forces on a field, and the sword/musket ball/etc only had as much individual effect as a bit of metal could on another human being. Any larger effect was the legitimacy accepted by the population based on the victory or defeat of those forces. In this scenario, the population is not a significant actor, other than to be fed off of. Now, without mass formations, and with war being fought in urban environments and populated areas, the individual effect is how many bullets are sprayed accidentally in a populated area or the collateral damage caused by a 500-2000 pound bomb. The larger effect is the general chaos and damage to popular legitimacy that results. As soon as the population is not just a passive speculator but an active (albeit not usually engaging by force) participant in the outcome of the war, effects on them cannot be ignored.

Some people would advocate a greater use of air power in Afghanistan and dismiss the consequences of increased civilian casualties. Indeed, some would argue for a “March to the Sea” approach in which a statistically significant portion (5-15%? More?) of the Afghan population is killed for the very purposes of both cowing the population into agreement as well as showing that the the Taliban cannot protect its own.

Putting aside the moral issues, there is something to this. History shows that the psychological factors often matter most. In Afghanistan, the newly acquired capability of shooting down armored helicopters gave significant real and moral support to the anti-Soviet cause, as well as took real and moral tolls on the Red Army. Insurgents had less fear of helicopter strafes because said helicopters were forced to fly much higher, above approximately 5000 meters. He who felt in control and he who was afraid were flipped.

Yet perhaps the biggest mistake is dismissing the idea that this concept could be turned to our advantage. If we have an enemy that cannot surrender, neither can they “withdraw”, fly away, and so on. The solution is that we have to then make the enemy essentially meaningless. And as they aren’t competing for bits of land — no one is taking the country hill by hill — what matters is whether the people reject them. The war becomes one of legitimacy and interests.

I recall a long lost (six months!) post here on Registan.net that briefly discussed what happens when civil legitimacy is taken from the enemy. When you share your supplies, don’t kill as many people, and generally be the ‘good guy’ in the fight. It’s something that a severely limited policy on CAS and artillery could be mimicking.

But if one were to really dispute the idea that the population matters, just look at the enemy; they are doing the hearts and minds thing even more than we are.

Update: What message does it send when you bomb your own? In an information-starved, conspiracy-minded society, this unfortunately makes the main actor wonder whose side you’re really on. From a more tactical view, it also illustrates the difficulty of determining just who the enemy is, and the imprecise nature of such large munitions.


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This post was written by...

– author of 5 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Historian by training and Analyst/Cultural Advisor by trade, Joe is an American working for ISAF mostly in and around Kabul. As an insider at the U.S. Department of Defense for almost the past decade, he has ample experience when it comes to the functions and dysfunctions of the U.S. Government and its adventures in the dusty corners of the world -- especially the ones where Persian is spoken. Armed with an MA from a modest state school, a working knowledge of Dari, and about a quarter of the country under his heels, Joe imagines he can speak intelligently about what might be right and wrong with the Western presence in Afghanistan in general and U.S. DoD policy in particular. An avid runner, triathlete, skier, mountaineer and climber, Joe thinks Afghanistan would be great if it weren't for all the land mines and men with Kalashnikovs.

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{ 1 comment }

Julia M February 19, 2010 at 9:24 am

Nice post , Joe, albeit somewhat hastily put together it seems 😉

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