How Short-Term Thinking is Causing Long-Term Failure in Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 1/24/2011 · 5 comments

I’ve been struggling to wrap my head around what this whole Tarok Kolache thing means. After catching up on sleep this weekend, and lowering my blood pressure a bit, some things became clearer. For one, and this is my mistake for not emphasizing this enough, I do not blame LTC Flynn for this. I don’t think he or his men are in any way malicious or bloodthirsty, and I should have done a better job of stating that up front.

However, that doesn’t mean razing Tarok Kolache was a good decision. Not to say it was an easy one—I am not in a position to judge whether losing men to clear a mined village, or hoping to mitigate the risks of leaving it alone for a while are better choices—but the way this was handled will have serious long-term consequences. That is what I was reacting against: the inability (or, as I encountered elsewhere in Afghanistan as a tactical cultural adviser for the Army, a refusal) to identify and manage the medium- and long-term consequences of disruptive decisions.

After further thought, I realized that what Tarok Kolache represents is a symptom of how screwed up and backward our strategy, not our tactics or officers, are. We don’t have an overall strategy—”preventing al Qaeda from returning” is not, in fact, even a preferable outcome masquerading as a strategy—and that causes all decisions to focus on the tactical and operational levels. But a lack of a strategy seems to constrain those tactical decisions into artificial time frames, often the length of a deployment but sometimes in reaction to policy reviews or “drop dead dates” like the now-bogus July 2011 date. When I was with HTS, I lost track of how many clear-eyed Colonels would arrive in-theater and announce their intentions (or, more properly, their orders) to “clear the AO” in the next six-to-nine months. This is not their fault. They are given these directives, and these expectations, from above. And it is there that I should have focused the anger and frustration. Not at the operational level.

I try to explain this further in an article for The Atlantic:

The pressure to achieve “progress” on an artificially short time frame has guided the U.S. military to make regrettable choices across much of Afghanistan. The destruction and reconstruction of Tarok Kolache is only one example, if an especially sharp one. That pressure comes in part from the same political forces that led to the July 2011 drawdown date, and now the 2014 one. It also comes from officers’ desire to show progress over a year-long tour of duty. You can hardly blame individual officers and politicians for the high-pressure environment driving their decision-making. In fact, some of these pressures, especially the desire to exceed expectations and accomplish great things, can be very beneficial. But each affects command decisions in unexpected ways, and when combined often undermine the ultimate strategic goals of the war.

If I had the space to write a longer article, or additional articles, I could catalog probably a half-dozen cases, in different parts of the country, where the exact same situation artificially and severely constrained the tactical choices a commander had available to him, and led to decisions being made that worked at odds to any sort of long-term success. A lot, but not all, involve the rush to hire local militias to give the appearance of Afghan buy-in; a lot, but not all, involve throwing incomprehensible amounts of money at poor, rural communities and declaring the villagers’ greedy reaction “progress.” But all represent the fundamental rot at the core of the Afghan mission: we have no idea what we’re working toward, so we end up working toward nothing.

I just read Paula’s latest, still full of the starry-eyed naivete we’ve been complaining about this whole time, along with the now-standard digs at anyone living or working in DC being incapable of understanding the war… on a blog written from an office in DC. Unless substantially new information comes out, like maybe Paula giving not just the soldiers but also the Afghans names and agency in their own affairs, I’m done writing about this.

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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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Dishonesty? January 24, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Progress at Arghandab 2009-10,2nd Bn 508th PIR

March 2010,

Getting the elders’ support for the Karzai government in the Arghandab District is critical to U.S. plans to push the Taliban from Kandahar province, birthplace of the jihadist movement.

The valley lies five miles north of Kandahar and has historically been an entry point to the city for the Taliban. The United States and NATO forces are preparing an offensive in the province this summer.

Agha has left the Taliban but has not openly denounced it. He is “evaluating” what the government can do for his people, said Lt. Col. Guy Jones, the commander of an 82nd Airborne battalion patrolling the valley and helping the government establish itself.

Jones and commanders like him across Afghanistan try to navigate the complexities of Afghan politics — a mixture of tribal feuds, government corruption and varying levels of sympathy for the Taliban — to persuade the people to turn from the Taliban to Karzai.

Jones says it will not be easy.

“You move one thing, and it changes the dynamics of the other 10 factors on that problem. You change it back, and guess what, the puzzle doesn’t go back to the way it was just a few minutes ago,” said Jones, who commands the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

April 2010

“The overall plan is to create a ring of security around Kandahar,” said Maj. Scott Brannon, operations officer for 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which took over operations in the Arghandab River valley, northwest of the city, in December. “That’s what we’re trying to do, to close [the city] off.”

Efforts include proving to the locals that U.S. forces can and will protect them from Taliban visits in the dead of night.

Sitting inside a modestly furnished school in the dusty Arghandab village of Rajan Kala, a few miles north of Kandahar, Capt. Adam Armstrong recently tried to convince four Afghan men that coalition and Afghan forces could protect them if they moved back into a nearby village called Jeleran that the men and other residents abandoned last summer during fierce fighting between the Taliban and NATO forces.

“Our No. 1 goal is to secure you so that you can live a normal life,” said Armstrong, commander of Company B, 2-508.

But a young man who appeared to speak for the group expressed fear that NATO planes would bomb the village. He also wondered who would protect them at night, when U.S. forces were not present and the Taliban came around.

Armstrong assured the men that the village would not be bombed and his soldiers would patrol the area at night.

A turning point came when Armstrong mentioned that an elder in Jeleran had told U.S. officers he was willing to move his people back if U.S. soldiers could provide security and development projects. The Afghans said if the elder told them it was OK to return, they would. Such a move would represent a small, but important victory for Company B.
Since moving into the western quarter of the Arghandab — a lush farming district — Company B soldiers have taken advantage of the traditional winter lull in fighting to build relationships with villagers who have remained in the area. They hope to encourage those who farm by day, but leave to spend the night elsewhere, to return to their farm villages permanently.

Until now, villagers could only either side with coalition and Afghan security forces or join the Taliban, Armstrong said.

June 2010

Taliban activity had been picking up as the weather grew warmer, and insurgents flowed back into the area from their sanctuary in Pakistan. Two days before I arrived, one soldier was killed and three more were wounded by a cluster of I.E.D.’s planted in the road near Charbagh, in the turbulent belt just a few miles northwest of Kandahar. A rocket was fired over the base. Soldiers to the west came under attack from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades. Jones continued to instruct his men to fire only when fired upon. This wasn’t easy, especially in the aftermath of events like the road bombing in Charbagh. The soldiers were itching to shoot somebody. Still, even with the stepped-up activity, there was rarely anyone to shoot. The Taliban came out at night, when the patrols were gone, threatening villagers who participated in cash-for-work programs or sent their children to school. The men of the 2/508th fought a phantom war, facing I.E.D.’s rather than insurgents.

Arghandab was something of a show district. General McChrystal had already been there twice. One morning, Lt. Gen. Andrew Leslie, commander of the Canadian Army, paid a visit. After listening to one of Jones’s passionate briefings, the general asked for the microphone and congratulated his host for “truly understanding and operationalizing counterinsurgency theory.” The auguries, in fact, were generally positive: Taliban attacks were down from the previous summer; farmers were expecting a bumper crop of pomegranates; a few closed schools had reopened. The district shura I attended consisted mostly of bearded gentlemen arguing over who was responsible for breakdowns in security and the district governor’s berating the whole lot of them; but, as Jones put it, “If they’re arguing like kids, and they’re doing it in a nonviolent way, then they’ve just experienced governance.” As recently as a year ago, the district was too dangerous for the shura to meet at all. Now people were beginning to see the shura as a place to get problems solved. Kevin Melton said: “The communities are starting to say, ‘This is not just my problem.’ We are slowly working our way to a social contract.”

July 2010

“It doesn’t matter which way we go,” he said, “because we’re going to get in a firefight, and we’re not going to get far.” He gathered the 101st soldiers. “I need you to have your game faces on,” he said. “This is what we do here every day. Welcome to the Arghandab.” The soldiers stared back, silent.
The paratroopers figured that the Talibs had zeroed in on the compound’s two entrances, at the southeast and southwest corners, and would shoot at the soldiers when they exited. To distract them, the soldiers would detonate a Claymore mine, which they had set up 30 feet outside the door—and, if the gunmen were close enough, maybe hit them with a few of the mine’s 700 ball bearings. Sgt. Dale Knollinger, a 22-year-old team leader in Gerhart’s squad, thick with muscle from daily workouts in Combat Outpost Tynes’s outdoor gym, picked up the clacker and squeezed it three times, sending a current down the wire. The mine roared, the ground shook, a dust cloud floated through the compound, and the soldiers whooped. But the laughter stopped a moment later. Mike, the platoon’s Afghan interpreter, intercepted a transmission over a handheld radio similar to those used by the Taliban. “Was that your bomb?” an insurgent asked, confused by the explosion. “No,” another answered. “I don’t know what that was.” So the area around the compound already contained at least one bomb, and probably many more.

Good Luck TF Top Gun

Andy January 24, 2011 at 3:34 pm


I do not blame LTC Flynn for this. I don’t think he or his men are in any way malicious or bloodthirsty, and I should have done a better job of stating that up front.

Or you could have just left out the part about LTC’s engaging in criminal activity in order to get good OER’s.

Anyway, please define “long-term success.” You are right about the strategy part, as well as the difficulty of managing medium-long term consequences (especially hard given continuity problems deployment-to-deployment), but whether or not Tarok Kolache and similar instances mean anything in the medium-long run also depends on how you define success.

For example, if we’re going to be there for another 10 years and during that interim we rebuild this village and keep the Taliban out, that might be long-term success because the negative consequences of this one action will be ameliorated over the long term. Likewise, if we’re going to get out next year (for whatever reason), well then that is a raw deal for these villagers but doesn’t hurt us long-term because we’re gone. It will be a problem, however, if we stick around and don’t keep our promises. Unfortunately, it looks like we might stick around for a least a few years and we aren’t very good about keeping promises.

The problem is definitely at the strategy level.

Andrew January 24, 2011 at 11:33 pm

I remember when I was working for one of the state Governments in Australia, the Government decided to tear down some of the decrepit Government housing that exists everywhere in Australia Slums. By all accounts, the Residents should have been happy. The most of the houses lacked access to running water or electricity and were isolated from Government services. We were providing them with new better housing, so it’s not like we were abandoning them. Initially, the residents were happy at the change in the housing, why wouldn’t they be? Yet, as time went on most of the residents were resentful and angry at the change, and eventually a little riot erupted over the change in Housing. It’s not as if my example was particularly unique, you can find examples of hundred similar everywhere.

I might not know much about Afghanistan in general and I am in no way qualified to judge the legitimacy of the village destruction. But I do know about the Poor, poverty and the basic psychology behind it and I don’t think that the Afghan villagers were as happy as they claimed to Flynn or Paula Broadwell. They might be Mud shacks and filled with IEDs but you can’t underestimate the effect the destruction of homes has had on the villagers, Paula Broadwell’s attitude to their homes particularly irritated me.

DE Teodoru January 25, 2011 at 12:27 am

I recall the notion of saving My Tho by destroying it. Bis at Fallujah. Tactically destroying these cities may have meant something tactically, but strategically, six years later, they meant nothing. Where are we going in Afghanistan? Where are we going with Tarok Kolache? Is it the same place?

The notion that we replace what we destroy– except for living tissue– to rebuild bigger and better is yet to be proven. That has been our military’s greatest flaw since Vietnam. The replacement has always been a heart-sore that never fit into its setting.

Where is LtCol Flynn now? What’s the next step? Yes, we have airpower and we use it but what about the aftermath?. Such lavish shock&awe tells Afghans a lot about how long we’ll last there. They can figure out that the more you spend TRYING to kill Taliban, the less time you can afford to stay at it. There’s a lot of deja vu here that I’m sure Mr. Foust took note of. We never really win, we just suppress counterfire until we no longer have adequate assets to keep doing it. One cannot imagine the replacement of Tarok Kolache with anything that will serve the alleged operational goals of the Southern Campaign. Is that enough bang for the buck?

McChrystal passed on to Petraeus’s kit of agitprop terms “hold and transfer.” What? To whom? Towards what strategic good? Obviously there’s no answer as, two years later, we’re still stuck on “hold”– Vietnam/Cambodia circa 1972!

Rather than assault with a Ricks’s space blog, the all excited about it all young lady scholar/soldier would do well to give us a grand picture where Tarok Kolache’s destruction is going and then report back HONESTLY where that event and its follow-thru fit within a strategic scheme. Once again, the military insists that everything happens for some greater good. Please make yourcase and then stand and argue it. Otherwise, it’s just propaganda from the Petraeus Peanut Gallery.

Oliver Belcher January 28, 2011 at 9:58 am

This post is disappointing. After reading the entire exchange, and doing a week’s worth of research on the operations (Dragon Strike) that led up to Tarok Kolache and Khosrow being reduced to dust, it is clear that Flynn committed war crimes. Although its hard to verify whether civilians were killed in Tarok Kolache, it is clear from various reports that Flynn and 101st Airborne collectively punished residents in Khosrow and other villages prior to their homes being demolished. Maybe I’m overreacting, but these quotes from an October 24 Telegraph report sound “malicious”:

“A loud speaker carried by a US psychological operations team blasted out the message: “The people of Zhari will now be held responsible for the cowardly actions of the enemy.” A handful of women wailed as a relative was hauled off and a group of children cried as their neighbours’ door was kicked in.”

“[Captain Stout] said, “I don’t care who you are, if there’s a grenade goes off and I see you around, I’m going to put a black bag over your head and you’re never going to see your family again.” One by one, Karim Jan questioned his captives then either cut their plastic bindings or sent them blindfolded to a police pickup truck.

Stout’s threat is not empty rhetoric – just yesterday we read in the Washington Post that the US military has detained 1,400 men in southern Afghanistan indefinitely without trial.

It is explicitly prohibited in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention to collectively punish, or even threaten to collectively punish. Domicide, like “many villages” in Arghandab, Zhari, and Panjwai have experienced, without a doubt falls under this convention.

It is a ridiculous logic that Flynn and Ricks have implored you to take: what would you do if you were in Flynn’s shoes? This is a red herring. If we are serious about international law, then we can’t subjectivize the law in this manner.

Plus, there remain more questions than answers: (1) if the Taliban drove the population out of these villages beforehand, where were the villagers placed? In refugee camps outside of Kandahar? How many villagers were there? Did they have a villager count beforehand, and how many returned to the village after they were razed? If there were no civilians nearby, how can Flynn claim in his last dispatch that the people who were suffering the most days before their bombing were civilians getting maimed or killed by IEDs? They can’t be absent and maimed at the same time, can they? Were most villagers gone, or just enough that the malik could say they were “empty (enough).” If its true, according to HTS polls taken over the year, that more people in the area supported the Taliban and not the government, why would they leave if the Taliban were present?

And, last but not least, how can the military differentiate between “Taliban” and villagers? The Taliban is an ideological movement; nobody looks like “a Taliban;” they don’t wear Taliban uniforms. This sounds eerily similar to the US saying that every male between the age of 18 and 50 was a terrorist in Fallujah prior to the abhorrent bombing that city suffered. Old wine, new bottles.

Oliver Belcher

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