Talking Tactics with Andrew Exum

by Joshua Foust on 1/18/2011 · 38 comments

I’ve been struggling in this space with how we can really gauge the success or failure of our actions in Afghanistan. I can’t say I’m any closer to an answer now, but after much wrangling over Twitter, Andrew Exum and I had this productive exchange via email. We’re posting this to both our blogs in the interest of fostering more conversation about the way we are fighting the war, and how we can ever hope to know if we’re winning… or not. So with that in mind, I’d love to see a conversation, below, about how we can interpret the confusing mishmash of often contradictory data that emerges from the war.

Joshua Foust: Recently, Paula Broadwell recounted on Tom Ricks’ blog some operations in the Arghandab Valley, in Kandahar province. I found some of the events she described, like razing entire villages to the ground, appalling. At least in terms of tone, you seemed to agree: on Twitter, you referred to some passages as “cringe-inducing.” I saw that as an example of questionable tactics in service of a non-existent strategy. But it also made me think back to a report you filed when you returned from a tour of the Arghandab. “Counterinsurgency,” you wrote, “as practiced at the tactical level, is the best I have ever seen it practiced.” Clearly, I’m missing something between the two accounts of this valley. So, what are the indicators you use to evaluate tactical counterinsurgency as the best you’ve ever seen?

Andrew Exum:: Yeah, the main problem I had with Paula’s post concerned the inability to see how ISAF actions might — while making perfect sense to ISAF military officers (and a West Point graduate like Paula predisposed to see things from the perspective of a military officer) — be perceived from the Afghan perspective. One of the things you often hear older military officers tell younger military officers is to “turn the map around”: how might the battlefield look to the enemy? I think that in counterinsurgency operations, where the population might matter more than in conventional, maneuver warfare, we have an obligation to turn the map around and see how our actions might be perceived by the local population.

Like Paula, though, I was impressed with a U.S. unit I visited in the northern Arghandab River Valley (ARV) last month. I have not had the chance to visit or observe the ARV over a long period of time and cannot say whether or not improved tactics will have a strategic effect, but I have observed U.S. military units struggle with the conflict in Afghanistan since 2001. I myself served there as a young platoon leader in 2002 and again as a Ranger platoon leader in 2004. I only mention that because I often compare and contrast units and small-unit leaders today with myself and the units I led in 2002 and 2004. I returned again in 2009 after several years spent wandering around the Arabic-speaking world.

The way one evaluates the tactical performance of a unit in combat depends a lot on how one perceives the conflict and what is important for victory. When it comes to maneuver warfare, the U.S. military has reached something approaching consensus on how we evaluate the tactical performance of leaders. U.S. Army Field Manual 7-8, Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad (pdf), for example, is a commonly accepted reference used to teach small unit leaders how to fight maneuver warfare at the tactical level in an infantry unit. It is based on both recent historical experiences as well as practical lessons learned. It contains loads of assumptions, most of which have been pretty rigorously tested. (With often painful results for those testing them!)

U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency (pdf) and U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24.2, Tactics in Counterinsurgency (pdf) offer similar standards for how we can teach and then evaluate units in combat in counterinsurgency operations. I should add, though, that I do not think the U.S. military and the scholarly community has reached anything approaching consensus with respect to counterinsurgency. I also do not think we have as rigorously tested the assumptions in these manuals as we should. (To give but one example, I question the degree to which our provision of social services really matters for success.) That having been said, when it comes down to it, I feel both of our counterinsurgency field manuals get a lot right. The emphasis in 3-24.2 on leveraging and supporting host national security forces, for example, is spot on. So too is the appendix on intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB): you can’t just know who you are fighting; you also have to know about the environment in which you are fighting. And I agree with the considerations for both offensive and defensive operations. [Note: I welcome any scholars who would criticize the manuals. My own thoughts on the things I think each manual gets right have been influenced by a) historical studies, b) what I myself have been able to learn by fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and c) spending a lot of time studying the conflicts in southern Lebanon and Afghanistan as a civilian scholar and researcher.]

Based on the doctrine, what I observed in the ARV was encouraging. I saw a unit conducting aggressive offensive operations, fully integrating special operations forces into their plans and operations, and taking local security forces really seriously. I also saw a very sophisticated IPB — the best I had myself ever seen at the company-grade level. The unit I spent an afternoon with, for example, really knew their neighborhood. They knew everyone who lived there and all the buildings in their area of operations. When something changed, I got the sense this unit would notice. And that’s really important. I use The Wire a lot to explain everything from Lebanese politics to counterinsurgency, and I would liken the U.S. Army to the character Ellis Carver: when we meet him in Season One, all he wants to do is kick ass and take names. By Season Five, though, he’s become a much smarter police officer. He’s taken the time to get to know the people he’s trying to protect and can thus better separate the bad guys from all the people just trying to get on with their lives.

Anyway, all of that led me to observe that U.S. counterinsurgency operations at the tactical level were some of the best I had ever seen. Caveat lector, I do not know whether or not these improved tactics will yield a strategic effect. There are too many phenomena — many of them exogenous, as @ndubaz pointed out on Twitter — that we cannot even observe much less measure. And we still have a lot of known pains in our asses (like Afghan governance and sanctuaries in Pakistan) that could render tactical gains ephemeral.

As one final caveat lector, my observations were based on a limited sample, and unit and leader performance should be assumed to be uneven across the country. Still, I was encouraged.

Joshua Foust: Okay, so I can summarize: the operations you saw last year in the Arghandab matched with your interpretation of how one would enact both tactical and counterinsurgency doctrine, yes? Aggressive operations, integrating SF, and taking local security forces seriously, all of which add up to good tactics? Is there any way to be more specific?

For example, in this Broadwell episode, the local unit was most certainly using aggressive operations, and they integrated SF, and they even worked through the ABP to develop local knowledge. The thing is, the aggression resulted in the destruction of an entire village (something General McChrystal strongly urged against in the 2009 COIN guidance for which you were a consultant), and the SF’s use of the ABP — Col. Raziq is not from the Arghandab (the ABP has no jurisdiction in the district) and his tribe has been in conflict with many communities in this part of the Arghandab — is, let us say, a bit questionable. How can we tell the difference between an appropriate use of these three aspects of good tactical activity, and inappropriate use of these three aspects of good tactical activity? For example, what makes aggression proper now, versus the restraint previous COIN strategies required?

Andrew Exum: Those are great questions, some of which I am hesitant to answer. I am reticent to pass judgment on operations I have not personally observed. I am especially reticent to comment from Washington, DC on operations in Afghanistan. My perch at 1301 Pennsylvania Avenue is a great place to think about strategy or policy, sure, but not so much operations and tactics. The best (only?) place to observe the latter is in Afghanistan itself. So instead of passing judgment on the aforementioned operations, let me ask some questions instead — questions that may be useful for both commanders on the ground as well as for analysts like Paula who have had the chance to directly observe the operations themselves:

1. What are we trying to do here?
2. What effect will these operations have on the enemy?
3. How will these operations affect or be perceived by the local population?
4. What are the trade-offs for using a character like Col. Raziq? (On the one hand, he is seen as being effective, but on the other hand … well, anyone who has not yet read the 2009 Matthieu Aikins profile of Raziq for Harper’s should.)
5. What are the likely second- and third-order effects of our operations?

The thing is, you can be, to quote one Stan McChrystal, “tactically brilliant but strategically stupid.” Are the operations that Paula describes tactically sound? Maybe — I don’t know. But I would hope that officers on the ground — as well as Paula herself — are thinking through whether or not these operations will have the strategic effect we hope they will have. Maybe they will. But I would hope we’re thinking through those five questions I listed above, which have more to do with strategy than tactics.

As far as tactics are concerned, I would again refer readers to FM 3-24.2 for what the U.S. Army considers to be good counterinsurgency tactics. I cannot myself reduce “good tactics” down to three or four things: I just picked out three or four things that I believed helped to illustrate why I left the ANV last month impressed.

Joshua Foust: Okay, so you don’t like to condemn events you didn’t personally witness. That’s… fine, I guess. I wonder why, though, an afternoon of briefings is sufficient to declare tactics good in one case but a few thousand words describing tactics is insufficient to question tactical decisions elsewhere. It’s kind of the crux of what started this whole discussion: at what point can we reasonably ask probing questions about conduct? The outlines of this village razing incident in the Arghandab, in my view, warrants probing questions precisely because it is such a drastic measure.

So, at best I can tell this leaves me with two remaining questions.

1) If tactics are good and adhere to theory, but either undermine or don’t advance our overall strategy, what’s the point of praising tactics? Isn’t that just wasted time, effort, money, and, most importantly, lives?

2) I can accept your view that it’s difficult to question too much from the U.S. But if no one sitting in Washington, DC, can really question the tactics we read about, in what way can we, in good faith, question and strive to understand the war? This, too, is at the heart of why I’m asking these questions. It’s not as if everyone who is interested in understanding the war can go embed with the troops (and there is, unfortunately, greater difficulty for war skeptics to get precious embed space, compared to non-skeptics). If personal accounts, even (as I called Broadwell’s latest) hagiographies, are not enough to prompt serious questions about our conduct, how can we reasonably evaluate what’s happening?

Andrew Exum: Okay, I’ll address your points one at a time, but before I do, let me just say that I have really enjoyed this. Compared with trying to explain this over Twitter, conventional prose is a joy. And your questions are good ones.

1. Oh, there is a lot of good in praising good tactics. Let me name two. First, improved tactics demonstrate a military organization that has learned — which big bureaucracies often have trouble doing! That’s very positive. Second, it is too early to tell whether or not the near-term security outlook for the ANV has changed for the better. But if it does, we will want to note the correlation between improved tactics and improved security for rather obvious reasons.

2. This is a great and legitimate question. I should be more careful and allow that we can, in fact, judge operations from afar when the documentary evidence is solid. I’m not trying to say I can’t second-guess or judge William Calley, for example, because I wasn’t personally at My Lai! But I would want a lot more documentation than Paula’s single blog post before weighing in on this particular example.

I think you are somewhat incorrect to say that skeptics do not get to visit Afghanistan. You write this because you’re thinking of people like me who travel there as part of our jobs as civilian researchers and have been outspoken in support (to varying degrees) of the current strategy. But plenty of other civilian researchers and journalists I know visit Afghanistan as guests of the command and return to write critical reports — and then visit again (see Hastings, Michael). Other journalists and civilian researchers write highly skeptical accounts without ever embedding (see Dorronsoro, Gilles). I mentioned earlier the journalist Matthieu Aikins, whose reporting I love. It’s worth pointing out that he has, in addition to observing the war as both an embedded and unembedded journalist, also been an outspoken skeptic of the current strategy and, together with fellow activist-journalists Nir Rosen, Gareth Porter and Ahmed Rashid, offered his own policy recommendations. (Along with some guy named Foust and a bunch of other non-journalists.) So if all we had to go on was a blog post from my friend Paula, I would agree with your point. But I linked to that great Aikins piece on Raziq from Harper’s that is required reading for many government analysts working on Afghanistan. There is a lot more of that kind of critical reporting and analysis out there — you and I link to it every day. I’m just hesitant to judge something after reading any one thing — and I think you would agree with me there.

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– 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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Dan January 18, 2011 at 4:41 pm

I appreciate that both of you took the time to put this together. It helps to clarify several ideas that have been floating around the current strategic-operational-tactical debates.

Keith January 18, 2011 at 4:56 pm

If I had to point someone to the writing that perfectly sums up Andrew Exum, I’d send them here. It’s pedantic, devoid of meaning, unwilling to criticize a friend, even though the friend is obviously wrong, and it refuses to question his most basic and, so far, career making, assumptions.

Here’s a few examples: Josh asks what tactical success means if they don’t add up to strategic success. Exum says it shows that the bureaucracy has learned. That’s all fine and good, but it doesn’t matter that the bureaucracy has learned if it still loses the war. In fact, one of the lessons learned from our COIN experience in Afghanistan is that it is a very quick way to turn your own population against a war. Further, his argument that COIN hasn’t had enough time to work is complete bunk. General McChrystal took over in June of 09–there has been plenty of time to evaluate the COIN effort–nearly two years. The clock doesn’t reset because we got a new general.

Here’s a second example: Exum likes to use The Wire as a analogy for counterinsurgency, but he misses the whole point of the series. Sure Sgt. Carver matured as a police officer over five seasons–he knew much more about his neighborhood in season five than in season one. You know what though? It didn’t matter. At the end of season five, despite all of Carver’s “learning,” McNulty looked out over Baltimore and saw exactly the same city he saw five years prior. There were new drug lords, cops, and politicians, but Baltimore was as corrupt, poor and violent as it was when McNulty started.

In that way, the Wire is a useful analogy for our efforts in Afghanistan. Ten years on, we have a new general, new politicians, and a new strategy, but nothing has really changed. Afghanistan is just as corrupt, violent, and poor as it ever was, despite a thousand American lives and billions of American dollars. And just like McNulty, we look out over Afghanistan wondering what the fuck happened.

arizona jim January 19, 2011 at 12:11 am

The clock re-sets when you get sufficient manpower to implement what you are trying to achieve. e.g. Summer 2010. My son reports good COIN success in Zabul. But in Kandahar – fight! COIN where you can .. but fight. Take out there command and control, get their mid-level leaders, and let’s see how well they come back this spring. If we keep them out, you might finally see some COIN happen in Arghandab. Provide security first … then COIN.

Blake January 19, 2011 at 3:20 am

Keith, you said: ‘At the end of season five, despite all of Carver’s learning, McNulty looked out over Baltimore and saw exactly the same city he saw five years prior. There were new drug lords, cops, and politicians, but Baltimore was as corrupt, poor and violent as it was when McNulty started.’

Ive never watched the show, but I do wonder, would you say that Baltimore wouldve been better or worse off if McNulty and Carver had simply refused to do their jobs because they were cynical and hopeless? Do you really think the police just flat out giving up is going to improve the crime situation? Whether McNulty felt that the result was worthy of his sacrifice or not, he should be able to see what good he has done, even if just a little. There are no easy answers, no simple solutions to lifes complex issues. But some choose to face these issues head on, and some choose to just give up.

Which camp do you fit into?

M Shannon January 18, 2011 at 7:41 pm

Q. How do you know if your COIN tactics are working?
A. In the long term over a wide area the number of insurgent initiated incidents goes down.

Quick check on how things are going: the DG, COP and US gov employees are willing to reduce the level of their own personnel security details.

It has nothing to do with learning curves or check lists in manuals. It has nothing to do with Power Point or knowing who lives where. Being impressed by IPB etc is a sign Exum was determined to praise the unit. That is of course what a good courtier does.

arizona jim January 19, 2011 at 12:05 am

First of all, I’m biased. This is NOT an academic or intellectual discussion for me .. my son is currently deployed in the Arghandab River Valley and I want him to come home to me, his Mom, his Wife, and his Child. Taliban had already kicked out the locals, boobytrapped the whole place, and we blew it up instead of asking Arizona Jim’s son to “go on in there and fix it”. Afghan land was abandoned and only recently re-joined. We are having effect. I’m against the war, but while there, do the best you can. It’s not about COIN in the Horn of Panjwaii .. it’s the Taliban’s “home”. We’ve got to root them out of this particular place.

Blake January 19, 2011 at 3:06 am

Arizona Jim makes a fine point here. As we discuss this war, we need to show sensitivity to those who are fighting on our behalf (remember, if there werent enough volunteers, the draft would most certainly return, war goes on either way), and to their loved ones who suffer every day for their beloved soldier fighting in a far away land.

Wars are started by people who dont have to fight them, and fought by people who have no say in the matter. Let us respect the brave fighters, and harshly criticize the ones who send them to fight.

We can discuss the validity of the war and question the tactics used to fight it, but we can not turn our backs on these soldiers who have sacrificed so much to answer the call of their government. A soldier does not get to choose which war he/she fights. We value them because they answer the call, no matter what.

After WWII, we called them heroes because we felt the war was necessary, never mind the fact that we killed hundreds of thousands of German and Japanese civilians in the process. After Vietnam, we spit on them when they returned home and called them baby-killers. But soldiers who fought in WWII and in Vietnam were making the same sacrifices, and fighting for the same reasons (many because they didn’t have a choice). They were both equally honorable, it was our response towards them after Vietnam that was dishonorable.

An honest debate is healthy and necessary, but we are at our worst when we point the blame at our soldiers for fighting the war that we told them needed to be fought. It is a national disgrace.

I encourage everyone to stop making our soldiers out to be anything but what they are: our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, mostly working class citizens of the United States who were raised to believe in freedom, equality, and justice for all (including the oppressed peoples of Afghanistan). If you want to question the policy, attack the policy makers. But lets do right by our soldiers. When they come home, they will need our support.

M Shannon January 19, 2011 at 10:04 am

Every soldier serving in Afghanistan is a volunteer. Everyone there has had more than enough time to leave the service if they object to the war, it’s execution or the leadership they must serve under. I dislike the overuse of the term “heroes” – it degrades the term to use it to describe anyone who joins the military- but the troops are certainly not victims either. They joined and have stayed in and should be as answerable for their actions or inactions as the policy makers.

arizona jim January 19, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Yes, they volunteered to sign up .. but “desperate” better describes my son. And once you sign up, you don’t get to “leave the service” until your hitch is up (3 years). He’s no hero and he doesn’t believe that he is either. He’s just a desperate kid who got married, had a kid (way too early) and needed a job. He’s not a hero, but he can’t just walk away either. Plus, he’s a grunt and just follows orders. Yeah, he could have enterred the booby-trapped building and got blown to smithereens. That wouldn’t hurt much of anyone, except HIS family. Not you, not his leaders, not the policy makers, not the Afhans. Plus, I didn’t see where anyone on this thread had called them heroes.

I’m glad they leveled the complex. At least it saved the lives of someone’s son (high probability). Didn’t kill any civiilians, and the place was already toast by being rigged with explosives.

M Shannon January 19, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Why not level the province?

The policy that allowed US troops to kill “suspected suicide bombers”probably cost US lives as ROE drove Iraqis and Afghans to support the insurgents. Destroying villages will cost US lives in the long term.

arizona jim January 19, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Don’t blow it out of proportion now. I just said “one boobytrapped complex”. That’s a far cry from a Province, isn’t it?

arizona jim January 19, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Shannon’s right, destroying villages will cost US lives. But not all villages. Village compunds that have been taken over by the Taliban (booting out the residents) and boobytrapping the heck out of them, will not cost a single US life. There are not many absolutes in life.

Fnord January 19, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Arizona Jim: But that does leave the enemy the ability to have villages blown up by ISAF, doesnt it? If it wants to punish a particular clan/tribe/group, it just needs to kick out the locals and wire the place, doesnt it? And does putting druglords and criminals like Raziq not sound just a wee bit counterproductive?

M Shannon January 19, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Are we only talking about one village one time or several villages and many homes over a longer period? I think the later destroyed by HE and bulldozers.

Is this policy to become widespread? I suspect if officers adopt not losing anyone as their mission then the destruction of any infrastructure that could be booby trapped will become SOP. That’s fine as long as you understand the hatred this will fan, the chances it will be repaired in the medium term are very low and how it guarantees more troubles down the road.

arizona jim January 19, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Fnord: Sure, it allows for the Taliban to use this to their advantage, but do you think for a minute that there’s some kind of shortage of intimidation methods and fear-mongering by the Taliban? I think de-capitated bodies hung throughout a village works just fine .. don’t you. Then the threat of “doing this to your family”. I don’t think this brings some new great insurgent weapon to bear .. there’s plenty of fear and bloodshed already. They don’t need this pre-wire technique and then ISAF blows it up for their portfolio. IMO

Look folks, if you want to look for impurities, immoralities, or improper acts (by either side) look no further than “war”. War is not pure, it’s not fair, and it kills people. The only “moral” thing is to GET OUT. I’m fine with that. I’m not defending our presence, I’m just saying: while there – use COIN, use technology, but don’t be afraid to FIGHT. My son’s life depends upon it. But then again, only 2% of the American population has direct blood in the fight .. so it’s no surprise to us parents that this has devolved into an academic argument. If your son/brother/father/ was there .. you’d feel slightly different about things (it happend to me). At least I hope you would.


Blake January 20, 2011 at 1:20 am

Stay strong, sir. I imagine that hearing these kinds of ridiculous comments dont help you to feel any better about your son being over there. But some of us do empathize with you.

I didnt say it before, but now I feel the need to say it. Your son is a hero, by the simple fact that he is willing to risk his life for people he doesnt even know (whether that was his reason for joining or not, I will assume he understood the risk he was taking).

I have problems with the Karzai government and many other things that are getting in the way of us waging this war more successfully. But I do not forget why we are there. To defeat extremists who will commit any act, no matter how heinous, in order to get their way. To me, that is a noble cause.

Blake January 20, 2011 at 1:02 am

Fnord, if the Taliban are willing to boobytrap an entire village because they know that the Americans will have no choice but to blow it up, then who is the bad guy here?

This is the same thing that happened back in Vietnam. People are very upset with the policy, and theyre taking it out on the soldiers, and theyre forgetting about all the evil shit the Taliban/NVA did to warrant us fighting them.

Blake January 20, 2011 at 1:13 am

The more I think about this, the more discouraged I get.

The extremists have actually won. A bunch of evil motherfuckers boobytrap a village (where civilians lived, mind you), and somehow that leads to our troops getting blamed. Thats bullshit.

So the insurgents, by doing what they did, cost those Afghan civilians their homes, jeopardized lives, and have SOMEHOW managed to make the coalition forces look like the real culprits. Unbelievable. No matter this country doesnt win any wars anymore. We might as well stop trying with all of this nonsense.

Let us remind ourselves, there is only one side here who accepts civilian deaths. Yup, you guessed it. The Taliban.

M Shannon January 20, 2011 at 10:04 am

“Let us remind ourselves, there is only one side here who accepts civilian deaths. Yup, you guessed it. The Taliban.”

If you remove armed private security guards from the totals the Taliban and ISAF have killed about the same number of civilians each year. ISAF was quite happy to accept civilian deaths for years in air strikes and convoy ROE incidents. Pressure from Karzai to stop bombing weddings seems to have cut don on the ISAF mass killing events but the daily attrition continues.

Blake January 20, 2011 at 2:35 pm

M Shannon, I accept your point. And maybe I am reading too far into the intentions of the ISAF forces as compared to the actual results.

But intentions do matter. So let me fix my previous statement.

There is only side who stands to gain from civilian deaths. And that side would be the Taliban.

RScott January 20, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Very likely already been said above, but if the village is abandoned and the “Taliban” are not there either, why not just by-pass it? To me it is no longer a target. Walk away? There is no obligation to clean out the mines etc. Just let it stay.

Blake January 20, 2011 at 2:39 pm

RScott, maybe because some of our soldiers actually do care about these people? How are they to return to their village once it has been boobytrapped with mines? And would the US be blamed when those people are being killed by those bombs? I mean, after all, by some of the logic Ive seen here, we are to blame for the actions of the Taliban, simply by being in the country.

The Russians left mines all over Afghanistan and innocent civilians are losing their lives from those mines to this day.

Land mine warfare is cowardice. Americans do not use land mines, and most certainly do not leave land mines behind in the places they visit. That should be enough proof of who has the moral high ground in this matter.

steve January 20, 2011 at 4:15 pm

The U.S. is NOT a signatory to the Ottawa treaty banning the use of landmines.

Blake January 21, 2011 at 2:01 am

Granted. But can you think of a time that US soldiers used land mines?

The only time Ive EVER heard a mention of it was in the book “SOG” where US commandos did use them occasionally when doing secret missions in N. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia. And I would say that those were unusual circumstances. Btw, thats a great book that everyone should read. I suppose that they may have been used in WWII… but its certainly not a current tactic of the US military.

M Shannon January 20, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Blake: The Afghan Taliban are poorly trained, poorly equipped (particularly with IED ignition systems), reckless, and fatalistic but generally have little to gain by killing civilians. In much of the country the “civilians” are family members or from communities the Taliban wish to have on side. Killing the people you want to house and feed you isn’t a good plan.

I define civilian as a person not party to the conflict. Armed guards, NDS and CIA informants, GOA & NATO government officials, ISAF interpreters, NATO drivers aren’t civilians- but NATO casualty figures show them a such making determination of exactly how many innocents are dying in the conflict difficult.

Do the Taliban kill civilians-yes in three broad categories. 1. accidentally/ recklessly usually by using faulty IED switches or trying to hit FOBs with free flight rockets 2. recklessly by attacking legitimate targets without care for collateral damage- i.e. suicide bombs targeting ANP near civilians. 3. murder of people thought to be spies.

The Taliban are not AQI or JAM. Terrorism (attacks on non-combatants in order to influence policy or ethnically cleanse an area) i.e. blowing up a market to terrorize the populace or cleanse an out ethnic group is very, very rare. The Taliban see themselves to be a resistance movement fighting an occupation which leads to far less terrorism than Iraq and far less than is commonly thought.

Blake January 21, 2011 at 2:13 am

“The Afghan Taliban are … fatalistic but generally have little to gain by killing civilians.”

If they can blame the US for those deaths, than they gain from them. This is a known strategy of theirs.

“Killing the people you want to house and feed you isn’t a good plan.”

From what I understand, those people dont really have much say in the matter. Theyre kinda, well… forced. Funny thing about the Taliban, they dont care much about public opinion.

“Do the Taliban kill civilians-yes in three broad categories”

You forgot a fourth category: boobytrapping peoples homes so that they can never return to them. I would call that a big one.

Do you still contend that these men arent terrorists??

M Shannon January 20, 2011 at 6:16 pm

BBC TV just had an interesting piece on Sangin. A Marine sniper kills a guy walking along a road because he had a radio (hopefully he wasn’t a NGO employee or shopkeeper using a sat phone but who knows). Then the Marine patrol burn a farmers corn so bombs can’t be hidden in it. Then the local elders tell the Marines they don’t want money just to be left alone and for the Marines to stop killing civilians. The Marines had also killed a cow and the elders wanted to know exactly what crime it had committed.

Sangin is only important because the Brits failed to pacify it and the USMC was assigned it. According to the report the single USMC battalion in the district has had 26 KIA in four months. I expect the number of Afghan civilians killed by the USMC to be considerably higher.

Blake January 21, 2011 at 2:20 am

Bad shit happens in war. Sangin is a bad, bad place, where a lot of bad people are holed up. Sometimes Marines have to do some dirty work to bring security to the masses. It is not a perfect process.

Somehow, despite all youve mentioned, public opinion polls in the ‘Stan still show majority support for the coalition forces (Peter Bergen mentioned 62% approval, if I recall correctly).

As far as Im concerned, most of the people who dont appreciate us being there are probably men who would like to continue dominating their women. And personally, Im good with killing those men. Sorry to say it.

arizona jim January 20, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Those here who think they know the Taliban should read (or watch the movie) Kite Runner. If you still come away feeling that the Taliban is just some resistance movement welcomed by their fellow citizens .. well then, we will just have to agree to disagree.

arizona jim January 20, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Another good depiction of the Taliban is “Road to Kandahar” a movie made by Paul Jay (yes, the same Paul Jay who now is Editor of The Real News Network). This one from a female perspective. You know .. Berkahs, no school, subservient to men, rapists, .. that sort of thing.

Blake January 21, 2011 at 1:57 am

“Berkahs, no school, subservient to men, rapists, .. that sort of thing.”

Yup. The kind of behavior that many of these folks apparently have no problem with.

arizona jim January 21, 2011 at 2:39 am

Oh, they have a problem with those behaviors Blake. They just can’t do anything about it while the Taliban are beheading folks down in the soccer stadium. Just because it goes on doesn’t mean the populace “likes it”.

arizona jim January 21, 2011 at 2:41 am

Blake, just figured out who you may be talking about “these folks”. Got it now. Sorry.

Blake January 21, 2011 at 2:45 am

No prob, Jim. Im not always clear when I type things, lol. We’re still buddies.

Tell your son to keep kicking Taliban ass over there, and to wave at all the little kids of course. They are the future…

M Shannon January 21, 2011 at 9:45 am

There is no Afghan word for misogyny for a reason. The difference in the treatment of women and kids between the Taliban and “our” rural Afghans now is a matter of slight degree. The Taliban have toned their social ideas down a bit (they have not interfered with girl’s education if sufficiently Islamic in the east for years, are talking about permitting girl’s education nation wide and the preoccupation with banning sports and music is dying) “our” Afghans are as old fashioned as ever. This policy change is quite clever. By reducing the social element of their programs and concentrating on ejecting the foreign military the chances of building support in rural areas are far greater.

BTW fictional movies and books aren’t the best places to become informed about what is happening now anywhere.

arizona jim January 21, 2011 at 10:26 am

Those books are not “fictional”, so obviously you haven’t read them. They are about real people and their families who suffered directly at the hands of the Taliban. But your indifference to learning more about this brutal sect will not dampen me today. I have learned some extremely good news!!! My son’s unit gets to come home early:

This article has some smidgens of our recent “effectiveness” over there.

Look, I hate this war and I hate having our sons and daugters in harms way halfway around the planet. But there is no denying that we have had some effectiveness once the surge provided sufficient resources. Whether this effectiveness can be maintained by the Afghan people themselves remains to be seen.

War is hell. And P.S. – I, for one, do not believe that our troops are “fighting for our freedom”. We are sufficiently “free” without this conflict. We are fighting to prop up a govt with sufficient stability to build fossil fuel pipelines from the Caspian Sea to the new deep water port in Gwadar, Pakistan (thus the clue to why we tolerate Pakistan the way that we do). I would just as soon begin reducing our global occupations providing muscle for corporate profits .. especially in the emerging countries in Asia and Middle East. But I’m not in charge. I’m just thankful my son will soon be out of harm’s way.

Thank you all for letting me speak on this thread. It has provided me with a great deal of relief and I thank you. Whenever you look at a soldier, remember that they are someone’s son, brother, father, or husband. Love them for who they are .. not necessarily for what they do or have done.


M Shannon January 21, 2011 at 10:46 am

Quote from my libraries web site: “The Kite Runner tells a sweeping story of family, love, and friendship against a backdrop of history that has not been told in fiction before, bringing to mind the large canvases of the Russian writers of the nineteenth century.”

Sorry but the Kite Runner is a novel.

arizona jim January 21, 2011 at 4:10 pm

You win.

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