Tom Ricks ran a guest-post today by Paula Broadwell, a former adviser to General Petraeus and current PhD candidate at King’s College London, who is touring the war on a research trip. It is, in a word, abhorrent.
Start with the title: “Travels with Paula (I): A time to build.” It’s so… hopeful. So upbeat. The soldiers and Marines are building a glorious new future! The photos and story, however, tell a different story.
After suffering the tragic losses and the horrific daily amputees throughout week, the men were terrified to go back into the pomegranate orchards to continue clearing their AO; it seemed like certain death. The Taliban had planted IEDs in a dense pattern throughout their AO, and even the commander, LTC David Flynn, was concerned about the potential loss of life, but they could not afford to lose momentum.
Keep that bolded bit in the back of your head as you read on: these soldiers are scared, and they’re worried about momentum (which is, yes, that thing no one can describe or measure but is nevertheless somehow very important). Best I could tell, that is their only excuse for destroying these non-combattants’ homes.
The artillery unit, acting as a provisional infantry battalion, went on the offensive to clear a village, Tarok Kalache, where the Taliban had conducted an intimidation campaign to chase the villagers out, then create a staging base to attack 1-320th’s outposts. The village of Tarok Kalache was laden with IEDs and homemade explosives (HME) comprised of 50-gal drums of deadly munitions. Special Operations forces conducted a successful clearing raid on the village. Then Flynn introduced the Mine Clearing Line Charge (MICLIC), a rocket-projected explosive line charge which provides a “close-in” breaching capability for maneuver forces. The plan was for one team to clear a 600-meter path with MICLICs from one of his combat outposts to Tarok Kalache. “It was the only way I could give the men confidence to go back out.”
On October 6, Flynn’s unit approved use of HIMARS, B-1, and A-10s to drop 49,200 lbs. of ordnance on the Taliban tactical base of Tarok Kalache, resulting in NO CIVCAS. Their clearance of Babur, Khosrow Sofla, Charqolba Sofla, and other villages commenced October 7, aided by USSF, ABP, and an additional infantry company from B/1-22 IN.
Translated from obnoxious mil-speak, she is describing the village being intimidated by the Taliban, who are chased away by soldiers, then “cleared” by special forces, and leveled by massive aerial bombardment, apparently with no casualties. Nowhere in this account is there a sense that the villagers felt any ill-will toward the Americans beforehand—rather, Broadwell explicitly describes the village as being victimized by the Taliban first, then being completely obliterated by the Americans. In other words, rather than actually clearing the village—not just chasing away the Taliban but cleaning up the bombs and munitions left over—the soldiers got lazy and decided to destroy the entire settlement… “to give the men confidence.” This sounds bad enough—like a nightmare from before there was a Fourth Geneva Convention that prohibited the collective punishment and expulsion of civilians from conflict zones—but it gets worse.
Immediately after, the soldiers are told to rebuild the villages. The American commander had a neat idea, I guess, in that he’d like the villagers to participate in some way in the rebuilding of their village. But look at what he does:
Flynn also wanted a true GIRoA solution, demanding that all the Afghans from the village work this issue together, led by their malik. His concern was that the Afghans would run away with CERP funding and no homes would be rebuilt with the funds they had handed over. The build and compensation initiatives required careful oversight.
They wound up vetting all supplicants through the district governor, which basically means whoever paid him off got whatever land they wanted and any poor people in the village lost their homes forever. Broadwell then profiles a “doubter” (as she calls him) from the village, “Mohammed,” who complains that the destruction of this village ruined his life. Rather than expressing regret at the destruction of his home, Broadwell writes him off as engaging in theatrics, because reacting negatively to losing your entire home and all your possessions is for pussies (obviously).
An Afghan government commission led by Mohammad Sadiq Aziz, an adviser to Hamid Karzai, has determined this and other, similar “clearing” operations has cost the Kandahar area more than $100 million in damages—from lost crops, destroyed orchards, obliterated property. Naturally, the U.S. disagrees, and accuses all those greedy Afghans of bitching about nothing to squeeze some more money from the International Community. It cannot be disputed that the damage to homes, livelihoods, and whatever else have you is horrendous, though. It is a subject worthy of at least the motions of regret and solemnity. Broadwell, though, has other ideas.
Indeed, clearing operations are a necessary evil to weed out the Taliban, and they often leave devastating destruction in the wake. But what Aziz failed to note is the tremendous effort some units, like 1-320th, have made to rebuild his country. As of today, reconstruction efforts are well on track for Tarok Kalache and others in his AO. Mosque construction is underway, the irrigation canals and culverts are being restored, and the local government has been an active participant in the process of assisting the people of the village in rebuilding their homes.
Basically, she thinks they should stop their bitching and appreciate the earnest efforts the U.S. is making to repair some of the damage they did by burning everything to the ground to begin with. Not only that, she is basically arching her eyebrows and wondering why those whiny Afghans don’t thank the Americans for their largess in rebuilding a village they destroyed for the sake of their own safety and—don’t forget—”momentum.”
Look, war is hell. I have no illusions about that. But what is happening right now in Southern Afghanistan is inexcusable. There were rumors of this policy of collective punishment in the Arghandab before (see this overwrought Daily Mail story that stops right before the village actually was destroyed for an idea of what is going on), and I’m really struggling to see how such behavior does not violate Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention—that is, how this behavior is not a war crime, especially given the explicit admission that such behavior is merely for the convenience of the soldier and not any grander strategy or purpose.
This sort of abhorrent behavior is not limited to the Arghandab, either. Broadwell explicitly states that it has the Petraeus stamp of approval, and Pahjwok has reported U.S. Marines in Helmand province explicitly warning local villagers of collective punishment if insurgents hide out in their settlements. It is probably a safe assumption to say that this is a widespread phenomenon.
What baffles me is, why the hell is Broadwell so pleased with this? Will she ever write a follow up post about where these villagers will be able to live while they wait for the magnanimous soldiers to rebuild the town they erased? The callousness of this account is, literally, breathtaking: if soldiers are razing entire villages to avoid a few IEDs and to preserve their momentum, that should be triggering even token expressions of regret or even concern. Instead, it prompts her to mock the Afghans for complaining about it… as well they should. Those soldiers will be damned lucky if they escape their deployment without any suicide bombs or nasty IED incidents. Because they have certainly earned the fatal, burning wrath of every single Afghan living nearby.
I cannot comprehend why the deliberate destruction of villages seems to be an official, sanctioned ISAF policy in the South. Is is abhorrent, an atrocity, and there is no excuse for it (nor are there words for the anger it’s stirred in me, reading about it from afar; I suspect Broadwell would sniff at me to stop whining as well, were we to discuss it in person). This should outrage and infuriate everyone who reads about it. But, and this is where I move from rage to despair: how could we ever possibly hope to stop it?